He is no bleeding heart, just a cop, and so the story of this rip-off shouldn't rankle him any more than any other scam, thinks Harry Foxwell. Except he can't get it out of his head.
A Northern Virginia contractor drove a group of immigrant workers to Newport News for several days of work, only to leave them unpaid and stranded, 170 miles from home. "You believe that?" Foxwell says, grinding his shoe into the ground as if tiny contractor vermin might be down there.
He's frustrated. Another group of immigrant laborers was taken to New Jersey and fleeced. The workers won't come forward in either case, presumably because they're illegal immigrants, says Foxwell, though this means nothing to him. He just wants to help -- if they'll let him.
He patrols Culmore, a small pocket of Fairfax County where affluence is a stranger and mistrust of authority a staple of survival. Just the mention of three initials -- INS -- makes Culmore's jittery men glance over their shoulders for immigration agents.
"You need to be careful of everybody with power -- police, too," said 24-year-old Walter Gonzalez, an undocumented worker from Central America who, believing an employer stole from him last summer, did not trust the police enough to seek help. "It's when you stop being careful and decide to relax that somebody gets you and deports you."
That attitude echoes through Culmore, an overwhelmingly immigrant community where people know not to pry into anyone's immigration status, where police officers help the illegal immigrants who will allow it, and where Foxwell hunts unscrupulous contractors because the neighborhood's welfare depends on it. "Comes down to this," he said with characteristic bluntness: "If people who barely have any money are getting stiffed when they should get paid, we have more problems."
It's a familiar spiral: despair, drunkenness, domestic abuse, evictions. "People start feeling angry and depressed, and that's when trouble starts," said Foxwell, a Fairfax County officer whose superiors have empowered him to do what he must to ensure that all Culmore workers get paid.
Said police Capt. Chuck Peters: "If people aren't getting their money or if they're miserable because they can't support their families, then bad things can happen. You can get reports of a man beating a spouse, a man turning to alcohol. . . . We give resources and encouragement to officers like Harry Foxwell so he can tackle root problems as he sees them."
The buzzword phrase for this is "community policing," and its emergence in Culmore serves as one more bit of evidence that American policing, like American politics, is increasingly local. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents have one agenda; Harry Foxwell has another: to keep peace in his community.
His techniques won't be found in any police handbook or legal statute. Foxwell calls or visits employers accused of rip-offs, applying moral pressure, capitalizing on the power of his badge to drag the reluctant to the bargaining table.
Sometimes even this won't lure an apprehensive worker into the officer's office. At 47, an 18-year fixture around Culmore and Baileys Crossroads, Foxwell is a ruddy-faced man with a bushy gray mustache and no illusions.
"I know a lot of these workers are scared to talk to anybody in a uniform because they think they're gonna get deported," he said. "I know that some workers think about coming to see us but aren't sure it's safe. What I hope is that word is getting out over there that we don't want to deport anybody."
"Over there" is the 7-Eleven parking lot in Culmore -- a huge, if unadmitted, ad hoc hiring hall where Hispanic laborers assemble each morning to wait for low-capital contractors who stay afloat on the backs of immigrant workers. The parking lot is where honest and disreputable businessmen alike can find the young Walter Gonzalez, who has heard "good things" about Foxwell and his partner, but even so is leery about relating his own charge of exploitation. Trust comes hard.
Dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and paint-dotted tennis shoes, Gonzalez stands amid a hundred or so hopeful men. A van cruises past and the driver leans out, gesturing at him. Their conversation is quick and furtive.
"Paint?" the man asks.
"I paint, si," Gonzalez says.
"Bueno, okay. Let's go."
"No have papers," says Gonzalez, wanting to make this clear, not needing to hear any more excuses, several days into his labor, that he won't be paid because he hasn't produced official authorization to work in the United States. "No papers."
A little shrug from the man behind the wheel.
Federal law bars an employer from knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant. But in the parking lot, staying discreet is a way of life. "Climb in," the man says.
Gonzalez absently fingers the small crucifix hanging around his neck, a gift from his mother before he left home. To protect you, she'd said.
But it is getting harder to believe in special powers. He'd thought he was safe in the shadows until what happened in July. After working several weeks for a company that already had paid him $400 for painting, Gonzalez went to pick up his pay for two more weeks, but was told, he said, that the company's expenses had been so high there was nothing left.
Perhaps if he did two more painting jobs, he recalled being told, money would become available. Later, the company would insist it never refused to pay him but said he first would have to provide a Social Security number.
"They never asked for those things when they got me," Gonzalez said in Spanish. "They know . . . I can't give them a Social Security number. They owe me a lot. Seventy-three hours of my work at nine dollars an hour comes to $657."
He won't be stiffed like that again. So he repeats to this man in the parking lot: "No papers."
"Climb in," the man says. Gonzalez does.
Residents of Culmore -- a hardscrabble community of 10,000, 85 percent of them Hispanic -- typically live payday to payday.
Six months ago, stirred by a growing number of reports of workers being cheated, Foxwell put out the word that he and his partner would investigate every charge, regardless of the complainant's legal status. Their chief hurdle was gaining the confidence of workers scared by federal watchdogs such as the Department of Labor and the INS.
But Foxwell has won the trust of several, in part by guaranteeing that he won't reveal identities. Employers, many of whom resent him as a practitioner of rogue justice, question his legal authority to intervene in disputes that, on their surface, appear to be civil matters.
"It's a fine line," said Peters, Foxwell's captain. "He's not to be out forcing the collection of wages, [but] just trying to bring people to the table. . . . These cases of nonpayment are happening quite a bit."
The black-market labor pool extends throughout the region. Three miles from Culmore, in the Shirlington section of Arlington, another group of Hispanic workers gathers daily. Stories of fleecing abound there as well, a problem endemic to the immigrant labor pool.
Since 1990, a nonprofit group called Casa de Maryland has served as a hiring hall for day workers in Silver Spring, requiring that employers comply with wage and payment schedules. Casa represents about 100 workers daily, handles 300 cases annually and has collected more than $174,000 in back wages.
Culmore has nothing like Casa -- no hiring hall, no pro bono attorneys. Just Foxwell.
"Before Harry, there was nobody," said Soledad Lyle, an administrator at the Culmore Community Action Committee who translates for Foxwell.
The stories never stop coming, though the cultural divide is wide. When a Salvadoran woman came seeking help, she adamantly refused to give her name, expressing terror that the INS would find out. "I don't want you telling him even where I live," she heatedly told Lyle.
Ultimately, the woman poured out her story of being cheated of her pay by a custodial firm.
Foxwell's partner, Brad Carruthers, paid the boss a visit, listening to his side of things before pronouncing judgment. "This lady worked for you and she's owed $500, as far as I can tell," Carruthers, 29, later recalled saying. "I'm gonna help her arrange for the paperwork so she can take you to civil court." The boss wrote a check for $500 on the spot.
Some of Foxwell's targets, though, have not hidden their resentment over his involvement, suggesting it smacks of coercion.
"How would you like it if a cop called you out of the blue trying to get a deal for a laborer?" fumed landscaper Vinnie Korfonta.
Accused by an employee of failing to carry workers' compensation insurance, Korfonta was indignant to hear from Foxwell. "Does he have the right to call?" Korfonta asked. "What law have I broken?"
Korfonta insisted that the laborer -- an undocumented worker named Elmer Carias who had broken his finger on the job and incurred more than $2,000 in hospital bills -- had been brought in by a subcontractor. "I didn't even know him as Elmer," Korfonta said. "He was always `Jose' to me. `Jose Number Two.' The subcontractor is the one responsible."
The man Korfonta identified as the subcontractor, Juan Carlos Hurtado, 28, expressed puzzlement. "I am just a worker like Elmer," he said. "Elmer brought me to the job the first time. So how could I hire Elmer?"
When the parties finally sat down, Foxwell told Korfonta that Carias's medical expenses and lost wages amounted to $2,600. Korfonta announced he wanted to settle, offering the 47-year-old Carias $2,000.
When Carias pushed for more, Korfonta left. A frustrated Carias was advised he could file a complaint with the Department of Labor, an option he rejected. "No, no, no," he said, fearful that the INS might get involved.
Labor officials, sensitive to the fact that undocumented workers don't trust them, vigorously deny they are hamstrung by the INS. They point to a 1998 agreement between the two that says Labor will not divulge the names of illegal workers to the INS. However, INS officials emphasize that this does not mean blanket immunity for illegal workers, particularly if the INS learns their identity elsewhere.
"I'd have to make my clients aware that if they went to Labor, they still might end up in [deportation] proceedings," said Janet Horman, a lawyer who heads Culmore's Just Neighbors Ministry. "You can't be sure what happens when you open that can of worms."
In July, Walter Gonzalez turned for help in getting his disputed $657 to Jon and Joan Peters, the Falls Church couple whose home he helped paint for ACE Professional Services. "They worked Walter and the others like dogs," said Jon Peters, who paid ACE $1,200.
ACE is owned in part by Taekwondo instructor Young Won Rhee, who did not return several calls from a reporter. But company official Tom Owens said ACE was simply waiting for Gonzalez to supply a Social Security number.
Asked why Gonzalez was allowed to work several days without presenting one, ACE lawyer Keith Moon said, "The company was nice enough to give him a job. . . . Why didn't he give us the information? I can only assume it's because he didn't have documentation."
According to Dennis Merrill, an official with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, employers must pay wages regardless of whether an employee has provided a Social Security number. "We don't get into immigration issues," Merrill said. "We will collect any wages not paid. . . . But the worker needs to come to us."
The possibility of approaching a state agency also seemed risky to Gonzalez ("It's the government, right?"). His leeriness of officials extended to Foxwell, who, as autumn arrived, tried finding volunteer lawyers while lobbying in his crusty way for Culmore's angry and shortchanged to come forward.
There are good days and bad, small steps offset by maddening setbacks. Foxwell passes along word that Korfonta has withdrawn his offer and is willing to see Carias in court.
Then something happens that feels extraordinary at the Culmore Community Action Committee. Tuesday afternoon, encouraged by what he has heard from Carias, Gonzalez comes out of the shadows, shakes Foxwell's hand and dares to put his trust in the officer.
"Elmer said he's great, so I come," Gonzalez says. "I gotta count on someone, you know."
Foxwell simply leans forward, gruffly nodding at the translator, "Okay, have him tell me his story."