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Council Election Not a Referendum on Day Labor Center

The Editor's Column
Posted by WhosPlayin on 2007/6/2 0:57:41 (3603 reads)

Council Election Not a Referendum on Day Labor Center

The issue of illegal immigration has become a very hot-button topic in the past year. A serious lack of federal action and funding has put undue burden on states and municipalities who have decided to take action on their own. As we recently witnessed with our neighbor city of Farmers Branch, the topic can get quite heated, and seems to be exacerbated by racial and ethnic tensions.

Lewisville is, I hope, a more pragmatic city. Regardless of the intentions of the folks in Farmers Branch – whether it be sincere frustration with the Federal government, or political grandstanding, or even racism, Farmers Branch is going to pay a lot of money, and cost its residents a lot of time and money in compliance. The legal fees to defend the move in court will cost them. Lawyers win, citizens lose.

But this is not an article about immigration – this is an article about day labor and its impact on Lewisville residents and businesses.

Day Labor

Wikipedia does a pretty good job of describing what "day labor" is, but I’ll take my own stab: Day Labor is the type of work where workers and employers match up for mostly temporary jobs. The laborers are hired and paid on a daily basis, usually in cash. Formal day labor is done through temp-agency middlemen, whereas informal day labor is the gathering of mostly men that you see right around places like Huffines plaza between I-35 and Mill Street. Workers gather early each morning, and trucks pull up to choose workers for jobs. Work varies and the pay is low. Some jobs are small construction jobs, whereas others are for passing out brochures, holding signs, or doing lawn work.

The practice of day labor has positives and negatives, and I think those both have roots that go much further than the immigration debate.

There are a variety of reasons why a worker would choose day labor. I’ve done it myself once as a student in college, and I’ve known others who have done it. For me, the reasons were simple. At the time, I was a reservist in the USMC, and many units were being called to active duty in support of Desert Shield. I had a hard time finding traditional part-time employment. So I worked a few days. I got my cash, and eventually found a job. (Then promptly got recalled to active duty!) Another person I know is a hard worker – and semi-skilled, but frankly, he’s a drug-abusing thug who can’t hold onto a job to save his life because of his bad attitude. Between stints in jail, he either goes to the informal day labor places, or works with firms like LaborReady.

As a father with two children, I can tell you that if worst came to worst, I’d want to be able to go somewhere and get some kind of job to make ends meet while I look for something more substantial.

Employers like the arrangement for many reasons – some good, and some not so good. Informal day labor is usually “off the books” meaning that citizenship is not checked, and payment is made in cash with no deductions for Federal Income Taxes, Social Security, or Medicare. The employer automatically saves about 7.7% on the bill, and the worker saves the same. Federal Income Tax withholding is a little more fuzzy, since many of these workers earn so little as to be exempt anyway. It doesn’t excuse the practice, but for some, just the hassle of withholding and reporting and remitting is too much. The better reasons for employers to like day labor are that they can get one-off or odd jobs done without the burden of hiring someone and the liabilities that go with it.

Right or wrong, day labor happens. It’s just the way the market is. Don’t get me wrong, I personally think that jobs with a longer-term relationship and total legal legitimacy are what our city and our society need more of. But if government is to become involved, then it should be at the right level. Enforcing taxation and employment rights or citizenship is a function of our federal government. Be my guest and call our Representative Michael Burgess, Senator Hutchison, and Senator Cornyn with your concerns on that.

If you really want to learn the down and dirty about day labor, you should read the UCLA Study on Day Labor

Dealing with the Consequences

Meanwhile, what we have here in Lewisville is a situation where day laborers are loitering and causing harm to the businesses in the area. We have increased crime, since these laborers carry cash.

It comes down to city code enforcement and police services to deal with the consequences. Unfortunately, it is Lewisville businesses and citizens that pay the price, in addition to the human toll on these workers who must endure dangerous working conditions and are often cheated out of their pay.

Many cities, including Denton, and most notably, Plano – have taken steps to at least provide a bit of relief to the businesses and residents as well as the laborers themselves by establishing a day labor center.

Lewisville’s Answer

Lewisville already has in its budget for the fiscal year ending Sept 30, 2007, an amount set aside to purchase a small plot of land near the current site of the informal day labor gathering spot, and talks are under way with the County Commissioners to purchase land belonging to Denton County.

This is something the council has already identified as a need.

Here is the budget item, verbatim:
$138,709 to fund a day laborer hiring site. The site will include a 24X20 picnic shelter and permanent restrooms. A 2-lane concrete ‘loading zone’ will also be constructed across the property allowing contractors to pull off the street, hire day laborers, then leave the site and reenter traffic. Funding will also be used for a bicycle rack and landscaping to increase the aesthetics of the site during operational hours. A new ordinance that will restrict day laborer hiring to this site will also need to be developed. This funding is a one-time expense to the General Fund.

The Candidates

Ron Aljoe sides with the City Council in recognizing the need to provide a better place for day laborers and employers to connect, that does not inconvenience surrounding residents and businesses, or cause traffic safety problems. Lathan Watts says something to the effect that because all day laborers are illegal aliens, we shouldn’t do this. We would in essence be spending taxpayer dollars to send a message of approval for something illegal.

Though I can respect the sentiment of not having two levels of government essentially contradicting each other, there is some nuance here:

1. There is a first amendment Constitutional right for people to solicit employment. The City does not have the power to arrest someone simply for soliciting employment, even if they use their right of assembly to do so.

2. Ah… But Steve, they’re trespassing on private property. True. So, lets use our tax dollars to send the police over and make them stand on the side of the road where they can cause traffic accidents. Even better, when one of them gets hit by a car, we’ll let our Lewisville hospital put them back together.

3. But they’re here illegally. Call ICE! OK, go ahead. Call ICE and tell them that you see a bunch of Mexicans standing around and that you’re just sure some of them are “illegals”. If you do manage to get one arrested and deported, sleep comfortably, knowing that their family here has no support system, and will likely end up on some sort of public assistance, right?

My point is this: Building a shelter and getting the day laborers to move to a safer location that doesn’t decrease property values, cause crime, and intimidate shoppers is within the city’s power. We can do something about this, and the City Council has been wise enough to recognize this.

Nobody, to my knowledge, on the council, nor Mr. Aljoe, has given this thing a blank check. Aljoe said that he supports it in principal, and hopes that we can do it, but that a lot is going to depend on the cost-effectiveness of it. At this point, that depends on how much the land will cost.

Regardless of who you elect to the City Council, this is not going to change. The council has already approved it, and having an additional vote against it will not stop it.

Though I personally support the shelter idea, I wouldn't waste my vote for City Council on that one issue. There are so many other issues our city must face, and it takes the wisdom of someone who has devoted a lot more time to the people of this city than 3 1/2 year resident Lathan Watts has. If the two were reversed in their positions, I'd still vote for Aljoe, though I'd stay on his case until he agreed with me.

Federal Answers

The bigger “problem-behind-the-problem” lies with our Federal government, which has failed us on all levels:
  • Our borders are not secure – even 5 ½ years after 9/11.

  • Our tax system is too cumbersome for small businesses and day laborers.

  • There is no good way to verify an individual’s citizenship.

  • We have so many undocumented workers here already, there has to be some answer that will get them all straight without having to send them all back.

The even larger problem behind this problem is the economic disparity between Mexico and the U.S. My snarky comment to that would be that perhaps if His Majesty, King George, Jr. had spent more time on foreign policy rather than foreign domination, Mexico might be able to keep some of her citizens employed there.

Perhaps the next “surge” in Iraq could be a wave of willing prospective immigrants who would serve a rotation in exchange for the right to live and work here, should they be lucky enough to come home. Also, I hear that there is a lot of construction work to be done in Iraq.

Just sayin'…

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