GARDEN CITY, N.Y. — A pair of county lawmakers on eastern Long Island, where the illegal-immigration debate has raged for nearly a decade, have proposed an anti-loitering ordinance targeted at getting day laborers off street corners.
Opponents argued on Jan. 25 that it is actually an attempt to criminalize "standing while Latino."
Suffolk County Legislator Jack Eddington, a co-sponsor, said his aim was improving public safety and preventing accidents, but he conceded he also wanted the day laborers — largely suspected of being in the country illegally — to go elsewhere.
"This is not a black and white or Hispanic issue," he said of critics accusing him of racism. "These young men are being exploited. They have no safety precautions."
Opponents say the proposal is unconstitutional and will not survive court challenges.
"The right of people to seek work in public spaces is a crucial part of our civil society," said Christina Iturralde, an attorney with the New York-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. "The First Amendment protects that right. This attempt to criminalize it is an outrageous attack on that right. ... Making 'standing while Latino' a crime used to be a joke. Now we see that we really do have to worry."
So far, municipalities have not had success on local crackdowns.
A federal judge ruled last November that the village of Mamaroneck in Westchester County discriminated against day laborers when it closed a hiring site and stepped up police patrols on the streets where they looked for work.
In May, a federal judge prohibited the city of Redondo Beach, Calif., from arresting day laborers for violating a local ordinance against soliciting work in public.
The Rev. Alan Ramirez, a longtime advocate for Long Island day laborers, said the Suffolk proposal was motivated by bigotry. "They're going after the immigrants, they're going after the undocumented day laborers, the poorest, the weakest, the most vulnerable who are trying to get any job anywhere just to put food on the table. ... It's shameful."
The proposal, which will be formally submitted next month and could be voted on by the full county legislature in mid-March, would impose $500 fines on people who "unreasonably hinder or obstruct the free passage of pedestrians or motor vehicles" or those who stand on the roadways to solicit or sell a product or service to any occupant of a vehicle.
"This issue is becoming more dangerous by the day, and once the weather begins to warm up, we will be seeing more and more individuals on the roadway," Eddington said. "People are afraid to drive down this road and stop at the stores because there are so many men just mulling around."
Suffolk police officials did not immediately have statistics on the number of accidents or other problems associated with day laborers soliciting jobs on county roadways.
"I wonder, are they going to go to the local theaters and Starbucks, where the high school kids hang out after school, and arrest them and give them tickets for loitering?" Ramirez cracked.
Suffolk County has drawn day laborers from Mexico and Central America over the past decade. County Executive Steve Levy estimated that of the 1.5 million people living in the county, 40,000 are illegal immigrants. As they do elsewhere, dozens of men congregate on street corners in certain neighborhoods, waiting for contractors to hire them at day rates to perform landscaping, painting, construction and other manual labor.
"People are still not comfortable with the fact that today, immigration comes directly into the suburbs," Ramirez said. "Unlike the traditional ghettoes in the inner cities, today's sweatshops are the restaurants for the middle class, the lawns that need to be cut, the cars that need to be washed, the kids that need to be taken care of. These are the new sweatshops."
In 2000, two men lured a pair of Mexican day laborers to an abandoned warehouse with a promise of work and then beat them with tools in what prosecutors said was a racially motivated attack. In 2003, teenagers armed with fireworks set fire to a Mexican family's home in Farmingville; there were no injuries, but the house was destroyed.
The county has tried numerous proposals over the years to address the issue; a county-funded hiring hall was rejected several years ago by elected officials who said they did not want to sanction illegal immigration.
Last year, Suffolk passed a law requiring companies with government contracts to verify their employees are in the United States legally.