- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

Montgomery County officials said yesterday they will open a day-laborer employment center in Wheaton, the second facility of its kind in the county where workers can meet with employers.

The 1,900-square-foot center will be located in a storefront space on the first floor of the Ambassador Apartments building, at the intersection of Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard. Officials said it will cost the county about $130,000 to renovate the space, and that they hope to open the center in late March.

“People who want to work and people who want to make a better life for their family and children should have that opportunity,” said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, who announced the location of the day-laborer site.

The county will lease the space for $64,000 a year. The day-to-day operations of the work center will be contracted through CASA of Maryland Inc., which operates a similar center in Langley Park. That center opened in 1991, county officials said.

The county now provides more than $1 million in support of CASA’s programs and services and will contribute more money to the new center, officials said.

“It is time to support the immigrant community,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, a community organization that provides educational and advocacy services to Hispanic immigrants. “The priority number one is jobs.”

Other day-laborer centers are being planned in Gaithersburg, Prince George’s County and Baltimore, Mr. Torres said.

The new site in Wheaton was proposed to meet the needs of the growing immigrant population.

“I’ve seen lots of changes,” said Natalie Cantor, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center who has lived in Wheaton for 35 years. “Fifty-six percent of the residents speak English as a second language.”

Although the majority of day laborers are Hispanic, Mr. Torres said, immigrants from other parts of the world look for work, too.

Between 150 and 250 day laborers congregate every day at locations in Montgomery County, Mr. Torres said. Only 20 to 30 jobs are available in the winter, but the number increases as warmer weather arrives.

Most of the jobs are in construction, but lawn mowers and tree trimmers also are hired.

The new center will help resolve some problems that affect day laborers and the community, Mr. Torres said.

It will give laborers a place to gather while looking for work, he said. Neighboring businesses and residents have expressed concern about unemployed workers congregating around a paint store and former restaurant near the site.

The center will provide language training and legal help. A monthly list of “best” and “worst” employers will inform workers about those who don’t pay their wages or don’t provide emergency hospital and other services.

Employment specialists do not determine whether applicants are in the country legally but collect basic information such as job skills, ages and addresses. Mr. Torres said the employers are responsible for legal hiring.

David Weaver, a spokesman for Mr. Duncan, said immigration enforcement is the duty of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and not Montgomery County.

“If we are delivering services in a federal government program that requires it, we check on the legal immigration status,” Mr. Weaver said.

Nearby residents said they approved of the new center and that the crowd gathering daily at Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard had caused no serious problems.

“I think those people are hardworking. Those people are great,” said Julia Docking, a mother of two boys who live three blocks away on Midvale Road.

“It’s better than being in the street,” said George Simmons, who has lived in the area for 45 years. “I’m glad to see it’s going to become organized.”

Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez, a Democrat, praised the day-laborer centers as national models.

“The successful partnership between business, government and CASA of Maryland has shown that matching employers and employees in a safe and organized environment benefits families, small businesses and the community,” Mr. Perez said. “The rising tide of Wheaton redevelopment must lift all boats to succeed.”

Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, Montgomery County Democrat, agreed.

“This is the most diverse district in the state of Maryland. … It doesn’t matter what language you speak, what color your skin is,” she said. “This new Wheaton day-laborer employment center demonstrates clearly that hardworking individuals make to the growth and strength of our state’s economy.”

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