SAN BERNARDINO—Roberto Arreola is ready to work but he needs a place where people can find him. For the last month, that’s been tough for the undocumented immigrant from Mexico. His livelihood is taking a beating because the city is cracking down on loitering.
Arreola and other day laborers who gather near the Home Depot at 21st Street and Highland Avenue say they have been unfairly targeted for violating city codes.
City Hall seems to be of two views on the issue:
“The Police Department has been hearing dozens and dozens of complaints for over a year,” City Attorney James F. Penman said. “It sounds like somebody finally decided to do something about it.”
But Mayor Judith Valles said she was unaware of any problems with day laborers near the Home Depot.
“I don’t think we have an ordinance for day workers,” Valles said. “I have a hard time believing they were cited for being on the sidewalk.”
Between Aug. 26 and Sept. 15, police issued tickets to 21 people for blocking the sidewalk while trying to solicit work from passing motorists on the street outside the store, Penman said.
The workers face fines of up to $340 per person, he said.
They are scheduled to appear in San Bernardino County Superior Court between Oct. 5 and Oct. 29 to respond to the citations.
Penman said the city has been enforcing ordinances prohibiting loitering, soliciting and jaywalking for many years.
But problems with day laborers stopping cars and blocking traffic have boiled over in recent weeks, Penman said.
Workers have requested the help of Libreria Del Pueblo, a nonprofit immigrant assistance organization in San Bernardino.
They have formed an informal union to press their concerns and plan to hold their third meeting today at 6 p.m. at the group’s office at 964 North Mount Vernon Ave.
Eventually, workers want the city to help them open a day-labor center similar to ones in Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga, Pasadena, Los Angeles and other cities.
For the time being, they plan to use the Libreria office.
Workers say they are tired of playing cat-and-mouse with police and Home Depot management.
When employees see them in the parking lot, they are told to leave. So they move to the sidewalk, but quickly disperse when police arrive.
Most are back again the next day and the same scenario plays out.
Arreola, 28, said he has only worked two or three days since late August. He is reluctant to show up because he said officers have threatened to ticket him and put him in jail.
“It’s a very sad situation,” said Esther Portillo, a community organizer at Libreria. “A lot of them haven’t had work for 15 days. It makes it difficult to put food on the table.”
Workers say a few of the men drink, deal drugs, urinate in public and make sexually suggestive comments to female motorists and customers.
“They’re painting us all with the same broad brush,” said Arreola, who has lived in the United States five years. “They need to be able to tell the difference between the troublemakers and the people who are there legitimately seeking work.”
Penman said most citations were issued on Aug. 26, when a large group of men surrounded an unmarked police car in the middle of the street and asked for work.
“People looking for work have to obey the law like everybody else,” Penman said. “They can’t run into the street and run up to a car. They can’t block a sidewalk. There’s no doubt it’s a traffic hazard.”
Penman said police asked to add soliciting violations to the citations that were issued. Soliciting is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $2,000 and six months in jail, he said.
Since it was their first offense, workers won’t be prosecuted for soliciting, Penman said.
But workers who continue to violate city codes can expect to be prosecuted under a new ordinance approved by the council last week. The ordinance, which would prohibit aggressive begging and solicitation, must pass the council a second time on Oct. 4. If signed by the mayor, it would go into effect 30 days later.
As an alternative to standing on the sidewalk, Penman said day workers can seek jobs at the Labor Ready business on Highland Avenue between Waterman Avenue and Sierra Way.
But Arreola said Labor Ready requires workers to have permission to be employed in the United States. Most people seeking work near Home Depot are illegal immigrants.
Luis Baeza, 36, said workers don’t try to be aggressive.
“They come to pick us up,” said Baeza, who considers himself a handyman. “At the same time, they buy stuff. We bring money to the Home Depot.”
Neighboring business owners say they try to keep the bad element away.
“The people who drink and use drugs disturb my customers,” said Hector Navarro, manager of Alberto’s Mexican Food on Highland Avenue. “I feel bad for the real workers because they are looking for money to support their families.”