Guadalupe Adams walked into the crowded room to announce that an employer had just arrived in search of a construction worker.
Just three hours after the Wheaton day laborer center opened for the first time last week, Adams, a job coordinator, had already collected the names of 41 general laborers and 34 skilled workers such as electricians and roofers.
"Victor Perez," she called out.
As Perez, a young, quiet man wearing a bright red T-shirt, rose from his seat, the men whose names were not called applauded him. He would earn $15 an hour working on a basement renovation over three days.
Dozens of day laborers gathered for the opening of the Wheaton Center for Employment and Leadership on Sept. 26, enjoying a breakfast of scrambled eggs and pancakes before settling into their seats to wait for work.
The Wheaton center, at University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road, is the second such facility to open in Montgomery County. It's also the first in the region to open since a debate over such centers erupted in Herndon this summer. The Herndon Town Council voted to establish a day laborer center; Loudoun County officials have said the planned site reaches into their county, and so the center requires approval from them as well.
The Wheaton center, which is run by Casa of Maryland, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group, has space for English-language and computer classes. Officials will also give the workers referrals to health clinics. The county will pay the five-year lease for the 1,900-square-foot office on the bottom floor of the Ambassador apartment building: $60,000 for the first year, with the price increasing 3 percent each year thereafter.
Day laborer centers have become popular ways for counties and cities to deal with a growing problem: the presence of men and women on street corners or in parking lots waiting for employers to drive up and hire them. But the facilities have touched off debates over whether governments should spend public money on people who may or may not be in the country legally.
At the Wheaton center, there was no talk of controversy. Instead, the mood on opening day was celebratory, with the men wearing T-shirts that organizers had provided for them.
"We're here for you. This is your house," Eddy Luna, the worker organizer for the center, told the crowd in Spanish.
Officials at the center will give each worker an identification card but will not ask for his or her citizenship or immigration status. The employers will also have to register with the center. Attorneys will be on hand to handle any cases of employers who do not pay their workers, a problem that has been prevalent over the years.
Avi Perez, who works for a home improvement company, said he was glad there was now a place for him to find workers to help with his projects. "This is the best," he said, after hiring Victor Perez. "Everything is organized."
Before the center opened, the laborers gathered outdoors about a block away, with no supervision and in the winter no protection from the cold.
They were people such as Jose Guillen, who arrived in Maryland from Peru four years ago, in search of better-paying work. Back home, he was a psychologist, earning $450 a month.
"I was looking for more opportunities. They are limited in our countries," he said.
As Guillen and his colleagues drank coffee in the main room, Luna invited them to offer their opinions about the center.
"We all have to collaborate," Luna said. "We need you to come here and tell us this is what you need to improve. There will be things you won't like. Let me know. We have to work together."
Several took him up on his offer, standing before the crowd and addressing the other workers in Spanish, turning the breakfast into what seemed like a group therapy session.
Daniel Chavez, a worker from El Salvador who has been in the United States for nine months, urged the men to clean up after themselves. "That way we can be proud of our center," he said.
The men clapped.
Carlos Alfaro Sosa, a worker from El Salvador who lives in Wheaton, stood and said he had overheard complaints that not enough employers were coming into the office.
"This is the first day. We just got here," he said. "We're not all going to work the first day. . . . Instead of being negative, we have to support each other."
Guillen told the men that they have to be honest with employers about their skills. If they are not construction workers, they should not say they are, otherwise it will reflect badly on the center, he said.
"Let's be honest in what we say and do," he said.