Monday, June 25, 2007

Immigrant Laborers in Mamaroneck: Microcosm of a Global Dilemma

After more than two years of initially harmonious, ultimately acrimonious discussions with Mamaroneck Village officials about setting up a day laborers' hiring site; after a heightened police presence and vigorous traffic enforcement at the former Columbus Park site; after the village's abrupt closing of that site on Feb. 1, 2006; and after a federal court trial last November, initiated and won by attorneys for the laborers, that resulted in the village being saddled with a three-year consent decree carrying a $500,000 price tag to pay those attorneys -- the Hispanic Resource Center (HRC) finally, on June 12, presided over the opening of its Workers Center at the Strait Gate Church on Madison Street in the Washingtonville section of Mamaroneck Village.

The opening, however, did nothing to close the question of whether the event signaled a victory--even a Pyrrhic one--or just another skirmish in an ongoing local battle that is no closer to resolution than the national debate over illegal immigration. The ceremony, itself, proved more of a magnet for press, pols and protestors than for laborers. Only nine workers showed up, and some of those came by just to pay their respects.

And, just 11 days later, on Saturday, June 23, approximately 20 neighbors of Strait Gate-- residents of Madison and Washington streets and Center Avenue, some with their children--picketed the Heathcote Hill home of Democratic Trustee Tom Murphy, whom they have targeted for his vote against closing the Columbus Park site (Republican Mayor Phil Trifiletti also opposed the closing), for his trial testimony that supported the laborers' harassment claims and for pushing for a settlement of the case rather than an appeal.

Murphy's wife and three children, one just kindergarten age, were not at home, but he sat out, in the bright morning sunshine, on his front steps throughout the protest, which lasted from 10 a.m. to 11:20 a.m. Occasionally one of his neighbors passed by and exchanged angry words, on that otherwise pleasant summer day, with fellow citizens from Washingtonville.

The demonstrators carried signs saying "Trustee Murphy Can't Be Trusted", "Why Don't Your Kids Come Out and Play?" and "Thanks for Nothing".

They told a Channel 12 News reporter that they were fearful because the laborers see them go out and could use this knowledge of residents' routines to enter and rob their homes.
Doris Dickerson, who lives on Center Avenue, told Channel 12 that her granddaughter was fearful of walking down the street alone because, she alleged, the laborers eye women who pass by and make remarks.

One of the protest's leaders was Jerry O'Donnell, a resident of Rye Neck, not Washingtonville, who ran for trustee on the Republican-Conservative-Independence Party line last November but came in last in a field of six. Prior to that election, O'Donnell had collected roughly 300 names on a petition opposing a laborers' hiring site. He said that he and the other demonstrators had first discussed picketing Murphy's home at a June 20 meeting at the Vittorio Club on Madison Street.

Asked why they would picket someone's home rather than stage a protest at Village Hall or at a trustees' meeting, the demonstrators said they wanted Murphy to get a taste of their experience of having people (the laborers) hanging around their front doors.

Asked to respond, Murphy said, "While I would have preferred that protesters not come to my house on a Saturday morning and disturb my family, they certainly have a constitutional right to do so. Unfortunately, the protesters feel that I have the power to stop the HRC and Straight Gate from having a hiring site on private property. They are misinformed and have been misled by the Republicans and outside right wing agitators."

The outside agitators to whom he referred, and who participated in the demonstration, are Chestnut Ridge resident William Tibbe, whose card identifies him as "Sr. Operations Manager, Citizens Civil Defense, Special Operations"; Charles Maron, a Yonkers firefighter; and Hawthorne resident Jim Russell, the founder of Westchester-Rockland Citizens for Immigration Control. Both Russell and Maron have spoken out against illegal immigration at meetings on hiring sites held by the Mamaroneck Village Board and a committee of the county legislature.

Russell ran a hopeless race last fall for Nita Lowey's Congressional seat as an "independent Republican" According to his campaign Web site, he holds a Ph.D. from Fordham in historical theology and taught theology at St. Peter's College. This certified theologian, when encountered at the beginning of the demonstration against Murphy, was printing the word "TRAITOR" on a picket sign. When asked if the term were not a tad hyperbolic, he replied that those trustees who voted for the settlement had "collaborated" with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which, together with attorneys from Dewey Ballantine, brought the laborers' case against the village.
O'Donnell did not deny writing a letter to someone named Jim, asking him to join the protest at Murphy's home and to "let everyone know we need their [sic] help and support with this matter. " He did, however, deny posting it on the Journal News's Mamaroneck blog, together with a message to "Mamaroneck residents," calling the picket line "your opportunity to let your voice be heard" on the opening of the "Day Laborer site in the Village of Mamaroneck" and alleging that the opening of the site was supported by "Village Trustees Tom Murphy (D), Toni Ryan (D) and John Hofsttetter (D)."

The local residents who did show up to picket Murphy had previously voiced dismay about the Workers Center the night before its opening. At the June 11 Village Board meeting they
complained that contractors illegally drive trucks down their streets to pick up laborers on Old White Plains Road and Mamaroneck Avenue, endangering neighborhood children. The Center, they warned, would exacerbate the danger.

Police Chief Edward Flynn, who had officers monitoring the demonstration at Murphy's house and came by himself, said his department had not received complaints about illegal truck traffic. Several demonstrators, however, insisted that they, themselves, had phoned in a number of complaints. O'Donnell said he had photos of trucks driving on streets where they are prohibited. And, as we spoke, he took a call on his cell phone from former Republican trustee Joe Angilletta, who was voted out of office last year, saying that he had just seen a large truck on a Washingtonville street from which trucks are barred.

Flynn noted that residents are there at all times of the day, but that, even though his officers patrol the area frequently, he can't station someone there 24 hours a day. He did, however, amend his statement about complaints at the June 25 Village Board meeting, saying that recent complaints numbered 22.

He also expressed annoyance that O'Donnell had not informed him in advance of the plans to picket the home of a trustee. He called that a courtesy he would have expected from someone who, himself, had run for office. (During last fall's campaign, O'Donnell called the police and filed a criminal complaint after one campaign sign on his property had been knocked down and another stolen.)

At the June 11 Village Board meeting, in addition to hearing the Washingtonville residents' objections to the opening of the Strait Gate hiring site, the trustees approved a consent decree settling the laborers' lawsuit and a $500,000 bond issue to pay the plaintiff's' attorneys.

Democrats Murphy, Ryan and Hofstetter voted for the settlement and the bond.

Trifiletti voted against the settlement, but for the bond. Explaining what seemd to be a contradiction, he said that the village's general fund surplus contained $1.1 million and that, since the board was also approving a $150,000 payment from the fund towards the recent police case settlement, it was necessary to borrow the $500,000 for settling with the laborers in order to keep the general fund surplus at an acceptable level..

Trustee Tony Fava had to recuse himself from the votes on the consent decree and the bond beause he and Bishop Wayne Powell, Strait Gate's spiritual leader, once jointly owned the church parking lot, where they had planned to build affordable housing for some of the church's parishioners. (A poignant irony in all of this--particularly in view of some sharp exchanges at board meetings between Fava and Ryan--is that Fava's father, Pergola Ryan's father and Bishop Powell's father, also a Bishop, who preceded his son as Strait Gate's minister, are remembered for the success with which they worked together to deal with problems in Washingtonville before matters got out of hand.)

Trifiletti had wanted to appeal the decision on the laborers' lawsuit, handed down by Judge Colleen McMahon, who found that the village had violated the plaintiffs' 14th Amendment right to assemble and had done so in a manner that constituted racial harassment.

Murphy, Ryan and Hofstetter argue that, if the decision had been appealed, the village would have faced further legal expenses, in addition to the $700,000 it has already spent on its own attorneys and court costs, and, in the end, might have had to pay another $1.2 million to the plaintiffs' attorneys, who had reduced their fee request in exchange for the settlement.

Nonetheless, some of the Washingtonville residents who picketed Murphy's home and opposed the HRC's Strait Gate hiring site at the June 11 meeting, were evidently unhappy about settling, rather than appealing, the case.

Their angriest remarks at the June 11 meeting, however, focused on the dangerous traffic they fear the site will attract, on the fact that there are two day care centers in the neighborhood,
and on the facts that there will be no one to monitor the laborers who remained after the site's daily closing hour of 12:30 p.m. (it opens at 6:30 a.m.) and no one to monitor them when they are dropped off at the end of the day.

They also criticized the failure of the HRC and the church to inform neighbors about the establishment of the site until it was a fait accompli.

Gustavo Lopez, who lives at 119 Madison Street, opposite the church, noted that he was born in Mamaroneck to immigrant parents and declared himself "proud to be Hispanic and proud to be American." He went on to tell the trustees, "My daughter and her friends play out on the street." And, he added, "My nephew, who lives down the street, rides his bike on Madison, Washington and Center. . ."

Another of his concerns, he said, is "the way the Hispanic Resource Center went about it, the way the church went about it." He said he would have liked them to come to the community and say, "This is what's going to be happening. Whether we're with it or against it, give us some fliers, give us some news as to what exactly is going to be happening."

Holding out his arms to show his brown skin, he said that, for him, it is not a question of whether the laborers are here illegally. (The plaintiffs in the laborers trial were listed as John Does to avoid any airing of their immigration status.)

However, a young Asian woman who said she had originally had come here from Taiwan on a student visa, noted that "many are here from many countries" because "it has laws and that's how things can work." She went on to say, "Most of us follow the law every step of the way so there can be a decent living environment." She didn't understand, she continued, why "some people don't want to follow the rules," even though they know "when they come here" that "there are lots of law and rules that have to be followed."
There were also expressions of class resentment. "The money in Orienta seems to think they want to do something nice for people," Washington Street resident Nancy Tumm remarked.

She might also have mentioned Larchmont, the primary base for The Summit, an organization that concerns itself with social and local governance issues and is the parent organization of the HRC.

Officers of the HRC and The Summit have persistently denied having had any involvement in instigating the laborers' lawsuit. However, on the first day of the trial, when asked how PRLDEF and Dewey Ballantine had first engaged with the laborers, PRLDEF's lead attorney, Alan Levine, replied that the HRC had arranged, and alerted day laborers to attend, a meeting to introduce them to some of the lawyers who would eventually represent them. And it came out during the trial that John Gitlitz, now HRC's president, had circulated an e-mail in 2004 raising the possibility of legal action.

At the June 11 meeting, HRC executive director Mariana Boneo again denied that the HRC had played any role in bringing the lawsuit. She also responded to the charges that neighbors had not been informed about plans for the site, saying that she had not been invited by members of the community to meet with them. She said she and Bishop Powell would arrange a community meeting.

She also tried to assuage other concerns, explaining that the men would be inside the church while they waited to be hired. And she, Murphy and Ryan assured residents that trucks will enter the church parking lot only from Old White Plains Road. Murphy declared that the prohibitions against truck traffic on the side streets would be enforced.

And, it must be said, whether the residents or the police are right about traffic conditions around the church, the Workers Center has established an orderly process for the few workers who do show up there. The men gather in the sanctuary with HRC coordinator Janet Rolon and case manager Irwin Sanchez. Strait Gate parishioner Howard Coke, who is employed by the HRC, mans a table in the parking lot, where he greets contractors and asks them what kind of work they need done, how many workers they need for how many hours, and how much they will pay.

Coke phones the information to Sanchez inside, and names are drawn in a kind of lottery to fill the jobs. If it turns out that a worker is not lucky in the lottery for a couple of days, he will be the first one picked next time around.

One day during the site's first week, when only a few men had shown up, Boneo suggested that the low turnout was due to the intense media presence on opening day and, thereafter, to the presence of protestors with cameras.

Another reason she gave for the sparse response was that, since the closing of the Columbus Park site, the men had staked out regular spots on Washingtonville's sidewalks (a point that has been made repeatedly by Trifietti)--at the food market at the corner of Madison Street and Old White Plains Road, in front of the Tarrytown Two Grocery opposite the church on Old White Plains Road, and on Mamaroneck Avenue, particularly in front of the Westchester Bakery, near Nana's Kids day care center, and in front of the Hess gas station at the corner of Mamaroneck and Jefferson Avenues.

It will take time, Boneo said, to convince the laborers that the Workers Center, where they can be sheltered, where toilets are available and where the HRC hopes eventually to provide English and citizenship classes, is a safer, more comfortable and more dignified alternative.

But, it is not altogether clear whether the majority of the laborers want a hiring site as much as the HRC and The Summit have wanted it for them. Doubts about that were first raised in a study conducted after the closing of the Columbus Park site by Luis Quiros, chair of the Westchester Community Opportunity Program, and Dr. Maria Munoz Kantha, former president of Hispanic Women Leaders of Westchester. That study concluded that an organized hiring site was low on the laborers' wish lists. One of the findings was that the men were more concerned about having toilets available at their work sites than at their hiring sites. The laborers' underwhelming response to the new Center seems to support the Quiros-Kantha findings.

However, it is also not clear what the Washingtonville residents would gain if the Center does not succeed and the laborers remain spread out along the sidewalks.
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NOTE: The only members of the press on the scene at Murphy's house when it was being picketed were the Channel 12 reporter and camera man and yours truly. Any other account you may have read indicates that Jason Blair's spirit of remote journalism is alive and well.
(For other recent coverage of the hiring site issue, scroll down to "Day Laborers' Hiring Site Redux".)


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