... 42706.html

Good riddance to day-labor sites

Published on: 04/27/06
The day laborers who gathered daily in clusters along a half-mile stretch of Powder Springs Road in west Marietta have disappeared.

I'm glad they're gone. I'm hoping they don't come back.

That sounds harsh, I know. But long ago I came to the conclusion that unregulated day-labor sites such as this one — about two miles from where I live — are indicative of everything that is wrong with this nation's failed immigration process. They have come to symbolize how the system has functioned so dishonestly; how it has warped our thinking about right and wrong, not just in the legal sense but in what it says about the value we put on hard physical labor and the Latino workers who do that for us.

Ask anyone who lives near one of these sites — in Sandy Springs, in Roswell, in Norcross, in Jonesboro, in Atlanta or anywhere they have sprung up in recent years — if they feel the same way.

When did we decide that people looking for work have a right to loiter in public space? When did we decide that it was OK to exploit them for their cheap labor, help them avoid paying taxes and give them directions to the hospital when they get hurt on the job? What does it say about us that when someone tries to organize these places — making sure the workers aren't being cheated, for instance, and that the employers are insured — the workers and employers often refuse to take advantage of it?

Sometime last week, the men went missing from their usual gathering spots along the worn-out commercial strip of convenience stores, restaurants, laundromats and mechanic shops on Powder Springs Road. It's clear they haven't left the area altogether. They still walk along the side of the road, frequenting the businesses close to where they live. If you go back into the apartment complexes, the men are gathered there — in much smaller numbers — sitting on cars or in the pine islands or on the retaining walls surrounding the parking lots.

They're hoping the construction site foremen or the landscape crew leaders who hire them will turn off the road now to find them, but they don't seem optimistic. When I spoke with some of them Wednesday morning, they blamed the "policia" for cracking down on hiring, but neither Marietta city officials nor the Immigration Customs and Enforcement office of the Department of Homeland Security — the federal agency empowered to enforce immigration law — say they have taken any special action at the Marietta day labor sites in recent weeks.

Speculation is that many of the laborers are convinced they will be arrested for trying to find work now that Georgia has enacted new laws aimed at illegal immigrants and the employers who hire them. The earliest most of those laws take effect is still 14 months away, and even then the hiring laws will not be enforceable for several more years — but those details are probably lost on the day laborers, most of whom don't speak English.

Homeland Security's newfound willingness to conduct raids at large employers who are exploiting illegal immigrant labor — such as the coordinated arrests in 26 states last week that netted nearly 1,200 illegal workers (including about 50 in Atlanta) and seven managers of one company — has also not gone unnoticed.

Additionally, Marietta has a city ordinance that makes it illegal to hire laborers off the street. The law hasn't been enforced for years, but the thinking is that the new state law will push the city to start using it again. That may be what's keeping the foremen and crew chiefs away.

One other part of the Marietta picture is important. A 350-unit apartment complex at the top of the hill just above where the laborers gather is slated for demolition later this year. It is home to hundreds of the men who seek work on the Powder Springs corridor, many of them crowded into the complex's one- and two-bedroom units. Word is that no new leases are being issued and that some of the residents have started to move out.

Is their disappearance from the street permanent? Are they going home or simply relocating elsewhere in metro Atlanta or to another state? It's too soon to answer that.

But if Congress follows up at the federal level with enforcement efforts that complement what state and local officials have done, the days of unregulated day-labor sites like the one in Marietta may be numbered.

That would be a good thing. That they existed at all is a testimony to our failure to deal honestly with this issue for way too long.

•Mike King is a member of the editorial board. His column runs Thursdays.