City OKs Gaithersburg day laborer site

Two-year search ends with a 3-1 vote establishing the center at Festival at Muddy Branch shopping center

Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

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Charlie Shoemaker -- The Gazette
Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz and City Councilwoman Geri Edens listen Thursday at a session on the proposed center.

After a lengthy and tense public hearing, Gaithersburg leaders last night approved an empty storefront in the Festival at Muddy Branch shopping center as a day laborer center.

The City Council’s 3-1 decision clears the way for Montgomery County to negotiate the center’s lease with Nellis Corp., which owns the shopping center off Muddy Branch Road near Interstate 270.

The decision opens a new phase in the city’s two-year struggle to resolve one of its most divisive issues. The city now must clarify several details with the county, including who will run the center and whether the city will pick up any of the tab in opening the center.

Supporters of the center were gratified that the city finally made a decision.

‘‘I’m happy. I believe in baby steps. I believe this is part of a process, and again, we are here, we will continue committed to our main goal, which is to find a job to bring bread to our tables,” said the Rev. David Rocha, a member of a coalition that is working closely with the day laborers. ‘‘So the jornaleros feel blessed today,” he said, using the Spanish word for day laborer.

Last night’s debate stretched nearly three hours in a packed City Hall as more than 50 people laid out their arguments for and against the controversial center. Opponents of illegal immigration attacked the city for being involved in a center that would cater to the illegal immigrants among the city’s day laborers. But the overwhelming majority of speakers — more than 40 — supported the site. Some made emotional entreaties, others called for practical solutions.

‘‘We have to get control of our situation,” said City Councilman Michael Sessma. ‘‘This is the first step.”

Gaithersburg’s day laborers — mostly Latino men, many of them illegal immigrants — have been gathering at informal spots across the city for three years, primarily along Route 355. Last year, the city and county were close to establishing a center at an empty building near the largest of the informal sites. That process broke down a year ago under pressure from irate neighbors of the proposed site. The city’s search for a new location met obstacles at every turn as the landlords of 30 sites balked at having their properties used for a day laborer center.

Last night, some of the business owners at Festival at Muddy Branch argued that there must be a better place to put the center. But the council decided that it needed to act now before losing a chance to secure what it calls the best place for the center.

‘‘'Better’ becomes the enemy of ‘good,’ and I think we have a site we can work with,” said Councilman Stanley J. Alster. ‘‘I’m very frustrated with how long it’s taken us, and I think we need to move on this.”

The sole “no“ vote came from Councilman Henry F. Marraffa Jr. who argued that if the county is so determined to flout federal law by helping illegal immigrants, the county should ‘‘step up” and handle the day laborers through its unemployment programs.

‘‘We are becoming a destination spot [for illegal immigrants], and I don’t think that’s our goal... We are a country of laws,” he said.

Marraffa, a Republican, is vying to replace Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg on the County Council. He is the only City Council member who has opposed the center flat out.

‘‘This is a desperate situation,” Marraffa said, explaining his vote. ‘‘I know these are hard-working people... but we are creating second-class citizens [by opening the center] ... This is another form of slavery in modern times.”

Many residents who supported the site did so cautiously, imploring the city to create new ordinances to keep day laborers from gathering anywhere other than at the sanctioned center. City Manager David B. Humpton distributed a draft of such an ordinance last night, and asked that the council be ready to discuss it on Nov. 6.

‘‘It’s the end of the beginning,” Assistant City Manager Tony Tomasello said after the meeting.