The problem with day labor centers

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Supporters of illegal hiring practices are once again pushing Petaluma to endorse the construction of a taxpayer-subsidized day laborer hiring center that will undoubtedly cater to foreigners who are in the United States illegally.

According to experts at UCLA, day laborers are overwhelmingly in the United States illegally and therefore cannot be legally hired. A recent Argus-Courier editorial, "Envisioning a day labor center" (April 11), gave support to a hiring center, but such centers promote illegal hiring practices, fail to prevent loitering and other problems associated with day laborers, and are a disservice to unemployed legal residents.

The Argus-Courier incorrectly asserts that foreigners here illegally do work "that most American-born residents do not wish to perform." This must come as a surprise to the citizens of Petaluma who work in construction, paint homes, or landscape, for example. In reality, there is no such thing as a job Americans won't do.

According to Census Bureau statistics, professions often thought of as "immigrant jobs" are mostly made up of native-born citizens. For example, of janitors, 75 percent are native-born; of construction laborers, it's 65 percent; of grounds maintenance workers it's also 65 percent; of maids and housekeepers, 55 percent are native-born.

It's not hard work that is deterring citizens — it's the substandard wages sometimes associated with these professions, which is perpetuated by illegal immigration and law-breaking employers. Employers have no incentive to offer better wages or benefits in order to attract Petalumans to a job if it is clear that cheap, illegal labor is readily available at a labor center that turns a blind eye to illegal employment.

Advocates of constructing a hiring center argue that it is the only way to prevent the problems associated with day laborers — problems that range from loitering to public intoxication, public urination, and harassment. But this reasoning is flawed.

First, the city already has statutes that address these problems and the police simply have to enforce them. People are loitering on the corner of Bodega Avenue and Howard Street because they're not being told not to. Second, many cities have discovered that day laborers often do not like the structure imposed by day labor centers, preferring instead to swarm the vehicles of potential employers with the hope of being chosen rather than wait to have their name called by those running the hiring center.

Additionally, the laborers are well aware that even where hiring centers exist, employers still want the best bargain and continue to hire from the streets as a way to avoid the wages demanded by the hiring centers.

If law enforcement isn't attempting to stop street-side hiring and loitering right now, is there any reason to believe they would do so after the construction of a hiring center?

It remains unclear how much taxpayers would be expected to fork over to construct and operate the hiring center. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors already supported a $91,000 grant for the Graton Day Labor Center and a $15,000 grant for the Healdsburg Day Labor Center for fiscal year 2012-13, for example, even though the board admits that there is "intense stress" on the general fund.

The Graton center has also received private donations, but when private funds run out, day labor centers always wind up asking city and county governments for additional funding. The use of taxpayer dollars for such purposes raises significant legal and ethical questions when it is clear that these centers assist unscrupulous employers in obtaining illegal labor.

Private organizations like Labor Ready already provide temporary labor (there is one in Santa Rosa) and they require workers to be legal residents. Taxpayers shouldn't be required to get into the business of matching law-breaking employers with law-breaking foreigners who are in the country illegally.

Considering the county's high unemployment and strained budgets, Petaluma should be cautious with moving forward on a plan that will cost money, facilitate illegal hiring, and ultimately not fix the problems associated with day laborers.

(Jon Feere is a Petaluma native who is now the legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan think tank devoted to research and policy analysis of the economic, social, demographic, fiscal and other impacts of immigration on the United States.)

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