July 17, 2006

Immigrant labor dilemma hits California beach town

By Mary Milliken

LAGUNA BEACH, California (Reuters) - Laguna Beach is such a
picture-perfect southern California beach town that the
youth-oriented television station MTV chose it to stage a
reality show with its blond, bronzed and privileged teen set.

But for some grown-up drama, there is Laguna Beach's day
labor center for immigrants, where the deepening division over
the tide of illegal workers in the United States is on display.

Opponents, mostly from other Orange County towns, call the
center a magnet for illegal immigrants that encourages more to
sneak over the border from Mexico. The anti-immigration
Minuteman Project has organized protests at the center and
challenged its legality.

Proponents, including the City Council, say it is an
exemplary center that concentrates workers in one area on the
outskirts of town and eliminates "swarming" where workers
gather on residential street corners and surround trucks
looking for day labor.

Even those who oppose illegal immigrants turn to the center
for their business -- a sign that the road to resolving the
illegal immigrant problem will be tortuous.

"I don't think these people should be here because they are
illegal, they are breaking the law," Jeff Hillman said as he
picked up a day laborer to dig a hole for $12 an hour, almost
twice California's minimum wage.

The chosen laborer, Marcos Jimenez from Mexico, heard
Hillman's opinion and jumped out of his truck with a slam of
the door.

"If he doesn't want to give work to an illegal immigrant,
why doesn't he go hire a white guy, an American citizen,
someone who speaks English better?" Jimenez said in Spanish.

Hillman, who does construction in Laguna Beach, admitted to
the contradiction, but said: "The competition is doing it and I
need to stay competitive. They do it, so I do it once in a
while too."

No other laborer at the center agreed to work for him that


On a typical day, some 50 mostly Mexican workers will
arrive around 6 a.m., take a number and wait for the pickup
trucks to come by seeking labor to work on house construction
or maintenance. Around half go home empty-handed.

They say they are treated well, for the most part, and they
often get lunch and a bonus for a job well done. Skilled
workers can earn up to $150 a day.

"It is part of a system that has been working in this
country for 400 years, so you can't suddenly stop it," said
David Peck, head of the nonprofit group, Cross-Cultural
Council, that runs the center with city funding of $20,000 to
$30,000 annually and private donations.

"And meanwhile there are 11 million people (nationwide) who
are working in the jobs like the ones we are providing."

Peck is anxious to see Congress enact immigration
legislation this year that will help define the immigrants'
place in the United States. Of the two competing bills in
Congress, he prays for the failure of the tougher one that
would make him a criminal for aiding illegal workers.

But Minuteman member and Laguna Beach resident Eileen
Garcia promises to be dogged in her efforts to close down the
center, which she says uses scarce city funds needed by legal

Garcia discovered the center was squatting on California
state land, but the city council ruled last week that the
center could continue to operate on the site for another year
while it seeks to acquire the land from the state.

That prompted Garcia and Minuteman leaders to call a
protest over the weekend across from the center. As they held
up signs saying "Illegal aliens steal American jobs" and
"Laguna welcomes slave traders," the workers and their
supporters shouted "Racist, Nazis" in English and Spanish.

Meanwhile, Laguna Beach, a town favored by artists and the
gay community for its progressive and tolerant nature, chafes
with all the controversy.

"We are just trying to deal pragmatically with the problem
a small community faces and this is a solution that works for
us," said City Manager Ken Frank, who estimates 90 percent of
residents back the day labor center.