- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

Government officials at a regional summit on immigration yesterday called for more day-laborer centers to keep immigrants from loitering on streets while waiting to find work and to assist them in finding permanent jobs.

“Washington tends to be a magnet for job activity so people are drawn to our area, and laborers are no different in that regard,” said J. Walter Tejada, an Arlington County Board member. “Local governments cannot wash their hands of an issue that is very real. We will tackle this.”

Mr. Tejada, a Democrat, made his comments at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ second regional summit on day-laborer issues. He was joined by about 40 nonprofit representatives and other government officials. The first summit was held in November and is thought to be the first of its kind.

Participants also said the day-laborer issue has become lost in the growing national debate about immigration and that local governments should resolve the labor issues while the federal government should enforce immigration laws.

Day-laborer centers are used primarily by illegal aliens looking for temporary work. The centers have become a contentious issue because local governments are using tax dollars to build them to eliminate the problem of job seekers’ engaging in such inappropriate acts as drinking and urinating in public while waiting for prospective employers.

Centers recently built in Maryland and Northern Virginia drew national attention because they are funded with taxpayer money.

Nearly 118,000 day laborers — about 75 percent of them illegal aliens — gather daily at more than 500 hiring sites around the country, according to the National Day Laborer Study.

The District has the seventh-largest immigrant community in the country, according to the Washington Area Partnership for Immigrants.

There are at least 15 formal and informal day-laborer centers in the region, with the Langley Park site among the biggest in the country.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said yesterday that more immigrants’ living in the region has created the cultural and economic fears that have led the group known as the Minutemen to come in to monitor activities at the centers.

Chris Zimmerman, a Democrat and chairman of the Arlington County Board, said the prime concern of local governments is getting the day laborers off street corners and into permanent jobs.

“It’s been very hard to take on that issue … without it being mired in the whole issue about immigration status,” he said. “They’re not all immigrants, and they’re not all undocumented, either.”

Another concern is whether the centers should offer health care, English tutoring and other services to the primarily Hispanic day laborers.

“We don’t want them coming back to the center anymore than they have to, so we really focus on giving them the tools to become self-sufficient,” said Karen Dale, executive vice president of Volunteers of America, an Alexandria-based faith group that runs three centers.

A study released yesterday by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that 54 percent of people in the region support government-sponsored day-laborer centers, but 50 percent said penalizing employers is the best way to stem illegal immigration. About 21 percent of the respondents said immigration is a “very big local problem.”

The region is “generally more welcoming” of immigrants than other metropolitan areas, according to the survey.

Participants yesterday also suggested that the Council of Governments ask day laborers about their needs, educate residents about day-laborer issues, work directly with businesses and communities affected by the laborers and provide models for other jurisdictions.

“The community as a whole needs to understand what a day laborer is and what it’s not,” said Penelope Gross, a Democrat and member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

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