Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Day-laborer center open for business

City will not enforce anti-solicitation ordinance ‘for at least several weeks’

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Four days after having arrived from Guatemala, (from left) Martin Lopez Lopez, Jose Lopez Vasquez and Pedro Ramirez ride from Gaithersburg to the new day-laborer center in Derwood in a van provided by Casa of Maryland.
After years of outrage, failure and strife in Gaithersburg, Montgomery County's newest day-laborer center opened Monday in Derwood with a strong worker turnout, a handful of hires and no community protest.

"This is the beginning of a great, great, great adventure between you all and us," Tona Cravioto, of Casa of Maryland, the advocacy group that will run the center, told the 50 workers gathered in the center Monday morning. "To have a center like this one is a tremendous blessing. ... We are here because this is the future of our struggle."

Though emotionally and historically momentous, the center got off to a slow start as two plumbing contractors hired four workers in eight hours. County officials and Casa pointed to the cold and blustery weather, but the number is consistent with winter hiring rates at other day-laborer centers.

Tuesday saw three hires - two for moving and one for a two-week construction job - among the 28 workers who showed, said Fabian Painemilla, the center's employment specialist.

Under the terms of the county's $115,000 contract, Casa will coordinate hires while referring workers to outside health and social services. Casa has added in-house English classes at its own expense. County police will watch the center closely for the next few weeks to ensure that would-be protestors stay within their bounds and that day laborers don't wander out into the community.

The day-laborer center, located in the county's industrial park on Crabbs Branch Way near the Shady Grove Metro station, is the county's third. It comes more than two years after the idea for one in the Gaithersburg area sparked a divisive debate over using taxpayer funds to support the large number of illegal immigrants who use the facilities.

When Gaithersburg leaders ended their two-year search for an appropriate site within city limits in November, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) moved quickly in January to get the temporary center built.

Twenty-seven year-old Pedro Ramirez was effusive in his thanks Monday as he and his two brothers climbed into the Casa van that took him to the center. He and his orphaned brothers stole into the country, he said, heading from Guatemala to Gaithersburg for what they had heard was the relative calm of immigrant-friendly Maryland.

"We came here only to work, to find whatever we can, for the tranquility and the chance to make a new life for ourselves," said Ramirez, who, having arrived only four days prior, had not heard about the center.

For the first two weeks, Casa will shuttle the workers the 2.5 miles between the parking lots in Gaithersburg and the new center. The city has nixed the notion of giving the workers bus tokens and plans to erect signs at the primary informal lot to guide workers and employers to the new center.

Casa's van picked up Ramirez and his brothers in front of the 7-Eleven on North Frederick Avenue, one of several parking lots where day laborers have gathered for nearly three years.

Looking for work in those lots is now illegal, as the center's opening triggered Gaithersburg's controversial anti-solicitation ordinance, which makes it a misdemeanor to conduct hires in public spaces.

Gaithersburg passed the law in February as a way to ensure public safety, drawing vocal support from residents of the Olde Towne neighborhoods that have had to deal with the chaotic lots.

In several informal discussions with city leaders, Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy "indicated that there were constitutional issues" with the law, McCarthy spokesman Seth Zucker said Tuesday.

He would not say what those issues were.

"We are not going to have any further comment until the [Maryland Attorney General] issues his decision," he said.

Several Olde Towne residents urged the Mayor and Council Monday night to disregard McArthy's non-binding opinion and enforce the law so that the courts can decide its fate.

Mayor Sidney A. Katz and the City Council discussed the ordinance in closed session Monday night.

But city police will not enforce the law for "at least several weeks," Sgt. Rudy Wagner said before Monday's meeting. Instead, Gaithersburg police will focus on educating day laborers about the rule.

"We want to reach out to them, because ultimately our goal is not to make arrests; it's to get people in compliance [with the law] and using the center," he said.