- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

A D.C. Council member is requesting $400,000 in city funds to put a day-laborer center in a Northeast shopping center. But it is unclear whether city officials will check the immigration status of the mostly Hispanic job-seekers that congregate at the site.

About 200 workers, many of whom are Hispanic day laborers, wait for work each day outside the Home Depot store at 901 Rhode Island Ave. NE, said council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat.

Mr. Thomas proposed building the center after neighbors complained about loitering and public urination in the area.

William Shelton, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the area, said plaza patrons also are intimidated when approached by would-be workers, seemingly “without any rhyme or reason.”

“That’s a level of discomfort sometimes for a lot of people,” Mr. Shelton said.

Mr. Thomas said he hopes to place a temporary “multicultural and training-based center” on land owned by Home Depot in the shopping center by next month. The council member’s long-term goal is to begin building a permanent center in the plaza by the end of the year.

Ron DeFeo, a spokesman for Home Depot, said discussions are ongoing and that the national chain has cooperated with other projects in the past to help solve similar problems. Often the day laborers gather to appeal to the contractors and homeowners who frequent the home-improvement store.

Other centers across the D.C. area like the one Mr. Thomas is proposing have been opposed by resident special-interest groups who say the sites cater to illegal aliens.

In Fairfax County, the town of Herndon opened a day-laborer center in 2005. But residents ousted most Town Council members who supported the site, and a D.C.-based public interest law firm sued the town for using taxpayer money to fund the center.

Montgomery County currently houses three day-laborer sites operated by the immigrant-advocacy group CASA of Maryland. The newest center, just outside of Gaithersburg, was slightly damaged May 4 by a fire that officials said was deliberately set. No arrests have been made in that case.

Mr. Thomas said officials at the site would check for standard documents such as work permits and address verifications when helping laborers find a job.

But a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Employment Services, which would help run the site under Mr. Thomas’ plan, said city officials are generally prohibited from asking whether a person is an illegal alien.

“Using local funds, we as District government workers can’t really ask for that type of information,” DOES spokeswoman Diana Johnson said. The Metropolitan Police Department also has a policy that prohibits officers from asking about a person’s immigration status.

Mr. Thomas said he has requested $400,000 in Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s Budget Support Act to help pay for the temporary facility, as well as the planning process for a permanent center. A vote on the measure is scheduled for Tuesday.

The permanent structure would sit on land owned by both Home Depot and the District and would hopefully be paid for with private funds, Mr. Thomas said.

The site would not be a “day-laborer” center but also would serve local residents seeking work, he said.

“What we really want to do is connect central employment opportunities and training [with] the work that’s coming from that location,” Mr. Thomas said. “It’s aimed at unifying.”

Officials said the center would include restrooms and would help alleviate neighborhood complaints.

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