The Hunt for Work Fosters Tension
Friday, January 26, 2007
Regina James says she drives past Rhode Island Plaza every weekday morning and has mixed feelings at the sight of more than 100 Latino men waiting for day-labor jobs in the Home Depot parking lot.
The increasing number of laborers, some of whom residents say leave trash on the ground and urinate along a nearby barrier wall, has heightened tension and stirred mistrust between the Latinos and the mostly black residents of the working-class Brentwood neighborhood in Northeast.
Some residents complain that the day laborers don't live in the community, express fears that their presence could bring down property values, and gripe that they may be illegal immigrants taking jobs from others.
"People don't want it there, and it's going to get worse," said James, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner.
But at the same time, James and other residents are worried about their own reactions. They know that African Americans are also out of work and out looking for jobs.
"I don't want to see this get inflamed, because 40 years ago, this was our history. Black people did those jobs that nobody else wanted to do. It's really sensitive. I want to make sure we handle it with care because it is already explosive."
Despite the ethnic component to the problem, the situation in Brentwood is part of a growing dilemma in the Washington area and elsewhere, intensified by those who oppose spending taxpayer dollars to help immigrants who may not be in the country legally.
Before a labor center opened in Herndon in late 2005, tensions grew between the mostly white residents and Hispanic day laborers, and the Fairfax town drew attention in the national immigration debate.
In Montgomery County, opposition from residents and business owners forced officials to abandon plans to place a county-funded labor center in Gaithersburg.
In the District, Latino advocates say the Home Depot is the largest day-labor site since one of two paint stores closed at 15th and P streets NW. During the summer, residents say they have seen as many as 200 day laborers at the Home Depot. Residents say police have not acted on their complaints about loitering because the parking lot is private property.
There was an incident last year at the Home Depot in which a day laborer stabbed three other laborers, but workers said they're not there for trouble.
Jose Abilio Hernandez braved the brisk dawn yesterday in the parking lot and said he hasn't had a job in almost six weeks.