Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Leadership group’s meeting with day laborers a first

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Mauricio was a teacher in El Salvador with a degree in business administration. Now he takes on blue-collar jobs around Montgomery County like dry walling and framing to send money home to his sons in college. One is finishing medical school and the other is in an engineering program.

In his native country, the economy is growing poorly and has no good jobs to support his family, Mauricio said.

‘‘It’s sad to say, but I left my country because there was no hope of finding work,” said Mauricio, who, like all the other speakers, did not give a last name. ‘‘I’ve been so lucky to find a place like Montgomery, which has given us a space of our own, so that we aren’t on the street, exposed to the vicissitudes of the snow, or stifling heat.”

Mauricio and other laborers from Honduras and Guatemala told their stories to a group of Maryland business, government and nonprofit leaders last week, an effort to put a human face on an immigration debate.

The face-to-face meeting with the day laborers was a first for a Leadership Maryland class, said Leadership Maryland board member Eliot Pfanstiehl, president and CEO of Strathmore Hall Foundation in North Bethesda.

Leadership Maryland brings together professionals for in-depth training on the state and county governments and programs.

Thursday’s event was set up by Casa of Maryland at the county’s employment center on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville.

The Leadership Maryland session with the workers occurred shortly after County Executive Isiah Leggett stressed at a press conference that a crackdown on gang activities does not mean the county intends to enforce federal immigration laws.

County Police are not going to train in enforcing federal immigration laws as some departments in the region are doing, said Leggett and County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger.

Prince William and Loudoun counties have recently passed laws aimed at restricting illegal immigrants’ ability to find work and access social services.

‘‘We are not Northern Virginia,” Leggett said at the Rockville press conference.

State’s Attorney John McCarthy also said county prosecutors want the immigrant community to know the increase of prosecutions of gangs should not be seen as targeting specific groups.

‘‘The state’s attorney’s effort is not about profiling,” McCarthy said. ‘‘We are not going to allow the term ‘gang’ to become a euphemism for any particular ethnic or racial group. We know that gang activity transcends all racial and ethnic groups.”

The Leadership Maryland session followed a late lunch of empanadas at the day-laborer center, a trailer in a Derwood industrial park. The laborers sat on one side of a folding table with the Leadership Maryland class sitting on folding chairs in rows at the other side.

No one on either side of the table — about 50 people total — used the phrase ‘‘illegal immigrant.” The workers said they were ‘‘without papers.”

While the two groups live in the same state, culturally they live in different worlds.

In Spanish, translated by Casa spokeswoman Kim Propeack, they related their difficulties in coming to the country and in being separated from their families. Lacking work visas and lacking English skills were their two greatest obstacles to finding work.

Several of the Leadership Maryland class expressed sympathy for the workers’ plight.

Caroline County Extension Director James W. ‘‘Jim” Lewis of Greensboro asked if the workers would reunite with their families if the nation’s immigration laws were changed.

Juan, a worker from El Salvador with seven children, said in Spanish he would.

‘‘We are here because we love our families and this is the only way we have to support them,” answered Juan, a worker from El Salvador with seven children. ‘‘So yes, obviously, that would be fantastic.”

Other Leadership Maryland students, however, expressed dismay that the county would operate a center that helps illegal immigrants find work.

‘‘How is this legal?” asked Charles J. Lollar of Newburg, a general manager of Cintas Corp. in Landover.

The workers said that having the center means they get paid. Without it, unscrupulous employers would often withhold paychecks.

Chuck Short, Leggett’s special adviser on establishing the center, said it is possible that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents could raid the center, but they are stretched too thin and have bigger issues to worry about.

Short said the logistics of setting up the trailer site were easy, but politically it dragged out in controversy for more than a year, crossing over from Douglas M. Duncan’s administration into Leggett’s.

Although much of the work offered at the day-laborer center is construction work, many of the workers have no construction experience.

Rojelio, who said he was a tailor in Guatemala, said the workers pick up construction skills from their friends and co-workers on job sites.

Mauricio, the teacher from El Salvador, said the Latino community wants to contribute to the tax base and to be good residents of Maryland.

‘‘God bless America,” he then said in English, which sent up a roar of laughter and applause.