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Workers, Neighbors Begin Dialogue

Jana Meyer translates from Spanish as Francisco Pacheco addresses a roomful of churchgoers, immigrant advocates and Dupont and Logan Circle residents.
Jana Meyer translates from Spanish as Francisco Pacheco addresses a roomful of churchgoers, immigrant advocates and Dupont and Logan Circle residents. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2005

In one of Washington's most affluent churches, in a salon featuring gilt-framed portraits and a baby grand piano, some of the city's poorest were holding forth on a recent Sunday.

"Please help us," begged Claudio Delgado, 35, a Nicaraguan who seeks work each morning with a crowd of immigrants at 15th and P streets NW. "We suffer every day. Imagine how difficult it is to change bosses every day."

In the back of the room, a Mexican worker jumped to his feet. Addressing the room filled with churchgoers, immigrant advocates and residents of the Dupont and Logan Circle neighborhoods, he said that day laborers are often cheated out of their wages, and that there's little they can do about it.

"We are afraid to call the police, because we are illegal," said Anacleto, a 34-year-old laborer whose last name is being withheld because of deportation concerns.

The meeting at Foundry United Methodist Church near Logan Circle marked an effort to address an issue that has roiled the region: the crowds of day laborers, many of them here illegally, who flock to street corners seeking work.

Although no definitive solutions emerged, the session provided a rare opportunity for a formal dialogue between the city's day laborers and local residents -- people who share the same Northwest neighborhoods but often lack even a common language.

In recent months, community organizations have begun considering the possibility of a permanent staging area for the District's day laborers. Several Washington suburbs have set up such sites, often supported by public funds, to provide clean, organized places for workers to seek jobs.

Advocates say the centers can resolve residents' complaints about the proliferating outdoor sites, where day laborers sometimes urinate in public, leave trash or pester passing women. The centers have been controversial, however, with residents of some suburbs strongly opposed to using tax dollars to help people who might be in the country illegally.

The District has fewer day laborers than the suburbs, where hundreds sometimes throng to an outdoor site. Several dozen workers crowd Washington's main informal site, on P Street, every morning; in addition, a handful turn up at a 7-Eleven in Mount Pleasant.

Community and church activists are concerned that the city's gentrification wave could swallow up the sites. A Duron Paints and Wallcoverings store on P Street where the workers used to cluster recently closed, making way for a condominium building featuring Italian-design kitchens and a health club. The laborers now gather outside a McCormick Paints store across the street, on a block that attracts an ever-more-upscale crowd with a Whole Foods supermarket, trendy restaurants and a Starbucks.

"They really don't know where the future lies," said Jose Gonzalez of the Spanish Education Development Center in Adams Morgan, who recently established a database to collect information on the site's day laborers. "If [developers] decide to build a high-rise where the McCormick building is, they'd have nowhere to go."

Spurred by that concern, a church worker, Jana Meyer, invited community activists, residents and day laborers to the meeting earlier this month at Foundry United Methodist Church, a block from the day-labor site. Francisco Pacheco, a regional day-labor organizer, gave a presentation on how the workers could set up a center -- from writing up a mission statement to creating short-term work contracts that employers would fill out. Immigrant advocates offered to help the workers get started and raise funds.

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