Gaithersburg looks to regain footing on day laborer issue

Emotions run deep at Council meeting; looming questions run deeper

Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006

Amalia Oven tried to keep it together as she spoke to the City Council about day laborers Monday night.

‘‘We immigrants, we’re not illegal,” began the 11-year-old from Germantown. ‘‘We are people that come here to make a better life, to help our families, to not —”.

Her voice caught for a moment. Her composure broke. Tears poured down her face.

‘‘It’s just sad — that we exclude these people — because — we think they’re different,” she continued between sobs, mustering enough strength in her voice to render a packed City Hall quiet.

‘‘Just because they don’t speak our language doesn’t mean they’re not human beings, it doesn’t mean that they’re not — that they’re not people like us — that they’re not flesh and blood. They are human beings. And they’ll always be human beings, and they’ll always be coming because they want to make a better life for their family. That’s all they want to do. They don’t want to hurt us, they don’t want to kill us, they don’t want anything like that. They just want to have a better life.”

Oven’s comments capped a series of charged statements from residents at the first update on the city’s divisive day laborer issue since Mayor Sidney A. Katz and the City Council rejected the only viable site for a permanent employment center two weeks ago.

While Monday night brought little in the way of resolution, it did bring a mix of emotion brimming to the surface — both for and against the city’s involvement with day laborers, many of whom are illegal immigrants.

Some residents defended themselves against criticism of their stance against illegal immigrants.

Demos Chrissos, who has actively opposed the city backing a day labor center, bristled at the suggestion that his stance meant he was a racist and a xenophobe.

‘‘I looked it up. American Heritage Dictionary: ‘One unduly fearful or contemptuous of strangers or foreigners.’ That is not what we are talking about. I am fearful of facts, I am fearful of what I see as trends,” he said. ‘‘I’m not saying that bringing new people to the community is not a good thing. What I have a problem with is that... in the rush to enter this country, the very first act these people have done is broken a law. ... I think if you break one law, it is very easy to break others to stay.”

The emotions were a sharp counterpoint to the update City Manager David P. Humpton gave the council. Though brief, he touched on a range of issues that should prove critical as the city moves forward.

He has directed police to step up its patrols of the areas around Grace United Methodist Church — the main day labor gathering site, which draws 50 or more men every morning — ‘‘and to take enforcement action as needed under our existing ordinances, including loitering, disorderly conduct, public urination, etc.”

It is the second time Humpton has given police specific orders on the day laborers. This spring, he told police to dedicate an officer for the parking lot next to Grace Church.

In a deal worked out two years ago with the owner of the adjacent shopping center, who owns the parking lot, the men are allowed to wait for work until 9:30 a.m.

Policing the day laborers has been a delicate subject for many, as neighbors to Grace Church want more supervision and Latino advocates worry about racial profiling.

To clarify statements he made that appeared in last week’s Gazette, Humpton sent a letter to county and state officials and Latino advocates Friday expressing ‘‘in the strongest terms possible” that he was not exploring the possibility of training city police to enforce immigration law.

In the letter, he explained that a conversation he had with representatives of the federal agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement was an informal one that happened almost a year ago. He added that a recent conversation with police did not touch on the federal training program, which an increasing number of local police forces across the country are enrolling in.

‘‘In my role as City Manager, I have an obligation to remain educated about all issues affecting local government. I have had no further dialogue with customs and immigration,” he wrote.

On Monday Humpton also advised the council against creating anti-solicitation ordinances.

‘‘I’m confident that existing ordinances will serve us well for the time being,” he said. ‘‘

While the city works to regain its footing after the only site for a center fell through, advocates for the day laborers continue to work toward building a formal support structure for the day laborers, a step that Humpton has encouraged of late and repeated Monday night, saying that he wants to ‘‘broaden” the outreach and dialogue with religious and community groups.

The Rev. David Rocha, who spends several mornings a week with the day laborers next to Grace Church, has been working to piece together a coalition with the support of Latino businesses and the African-American and Asian-American communities.

Rocha is pastor of Camino de Vida, a Latino Methodist congregation, and he has received the backing of the Baltimore-Washington diocese of the United Methodist Church to forge community partnerships in support of the day laborers. Progress on that has been somewhat slow, but he remains hopeful that the coming dialogue will give the effort some impetus.