Day-Labor Site Opens in Gaithersburg

Painter Jose Mendez, wearing a T-shirt that reads
Painter Jose Mendez, wearing a T-shirt that reads "I Survived in El Salvador," prepares to hop in a van to take him from the new site to a job in Annapolis. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A stormy three-year effort to establish a sanctioned gathering place for job-seeking day laborers in Gaithersburg came to an apparently tranquil end yesterday in a double-wide trailer just outside city limits.

After months of protests, counter-marches and threats of arrests, a few dozen Latino men and women quietly inaugurated the new Montgomery County-sponsored day-labor center with coffee, croissants and a notable lack of dissent.

Organizers hope the location, which is near a bus stop, will replace shopping centers and parking lots as a place to gather each morning. Yesterday, most of those present had been brought from a nearby 7-Eleven where, previously, the day's high winds would have been something to endure as they waited for contractors to cruise through looking for workers.

Instead, after some welcoming remarks from Montgomery officials and CASA de Maryland Inc., the immigrant advocacy group hired to run the center at 16642 Crabbs Branch Rd., the laborers waited in the bright, warm trailer complete with DVD player and the promise of English lessons and legal assistance.

The opening capped a prolonged, unsuccessful effort by Gaithersburg to find a location for the center. This year, County Executive Isiah Leggett bypassed the city government and provided a chunk of county land off of Shady Grove Road as a site.

"This is a good temporary solution," Leggett said in a phone interview. "I hope and believe that we will continue to operate in a matter that both respects the dignity of those seeking work and addresses the concerns of the residents."

A small force of county police was on hand in case of protests, but none materialized. Stephen Schreiman, head of the Maryland Minuteman, an anti-illegal-immigration group that has opposed the center, said by phone that protests were possible in the future. But for now, he said, his group will concentrate on possible legal and political challenges.

"They're spending more and more of our money on illegal immigrants in the county," Schreiman said. "I think it's going to take an election in three years. The residents of Montgomery County are going to be fed up with Ike Leggett. His actions have been irresponsible."

The job clearinghouse officially began shortly after 7 a.m., when a CASA staffer, in response to a phone call, called out in Spanish for workers with plumbing experience. Three men raised their hands and, after some brief paperwork, went out to meet their employer for the day.

"It's much better here than outside," said Jose Mendez, a 21-year-old from El Salvador who has been working illegally as a painter in the country for more than four years. "This is a comfortable place. The 7-Eleven can be dangerous."

The calm scene contrasted markedly with tumultuous scenes at convenience store and church parking lots in recent years, where the daily gathering of dozens of laborers led to complaints about intimidation and public urination from property owners and neighbors. The Maryland Minuteman group began monitoring the gathering sites. And immigrant advocates staged a prayer vigil and march on city hall after town police threatened to arrest laborers for trespassing.

In 2005, the county council approved funds for Gaithersburg to set up a day-labor center similar to county-funded facilities in Silver Spring and Wheaton. But city officials say they were turned down by more than 30 landlords in their search for a site, and county officials worried that political pressures would stymie the effort. It was during this period that voters in Herndon ousted the mayor and town council members who had supported a day-labor center.

Gaithersburg City Manager David Humpton said the county site, which is between a school bus depot and the central kitchen of Montgomery schools, is a promising one.

"The city has always said that we wanted to find a heavy commercial area where the contractors would find it convenient and the workers would find it convenient," Humpton said. "We think this is a good location and support it 100 percent."

The city council has passed an anti-solicitation ordinance that would make it illegal for anyone to seek work or hire workers on most streets, sidewalks and parking areas within city limits. That law was written to go into effect upon the opening of a day-labor center in or near the city, but according to Humpton, the state's attorney for Montgomery County recently advised the city the law would not withstand constitutional challenge.

Humpton said he would be seeking guidance from town officials at last night's council meeting.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company