Posted on September 2, 2004

Out Of Time And Money

Bart Jones,, Sep. 1

A storefront community center aimed at helping Latino immigrants in Farmingdale, including many who work as day laborers, is in danger of closing less than a year after it opened.

The Casa Comunal de Farmingdale, or the Farmingdale Community House, may shut its doors by October, organizers said, if they cannot raise donations to pay for expenses.

“I feel like we’re being strangled,” said Cristina Ruiz Diaz of HOLA, a group of Latino professionals. “And it’s really sad.”

The center on South Front Street is not a hiring site, but offers immigrants English classes, used clothing and bicycles, computer lessons and immigration help. It was born out of a conflict between residents who felt their quality of life was under siege by day laborers standing on street corners, and advocates who defended their right to work.

Despite criticisms that they were helping undocumented immigrants, the advocates forged ahead with the center as a compromise solution after two failed attempts to create a day laborer hiring site.

“La Casa Comunal is a beacon of hope for the Latino day laborers and immigrant residents of Farmingdale,” Janet Liotta, a leader of Farmingdale Citizens for Viable Solutions, wrote in an appeal for donations. “It is a place where Anglos and Latinos work side-by-side to address the day laborer problem and the issues that flow from it.” Liotta said a $25,000 nonrenewable grant from Catholic Health Services that the two groups and the Hempstead-based Workplace Project have used to operate the center will run out by Oct. 1. The groups sent out 500 letters to local residents and businesses in July appealing for donations of as little as $10 a month to keep the center alive.

Rent is due

So far, organizers have raised $1,040 in monthly pledges from 65 individuals and three businesses. If they can increase that to $1,500 to cover their monthly rent, they will be eligible for a $15,000 grant from the local Catholic Campaign for Human Development for other expenses. The Catholic Campaign grant requires fund-raising by recipients.

The center needs about $2,500 a month to operate, Liotta said. About 75 immigrants utilize its programs during peak times.

While the advocates have failed to convince local governments, philanthropic organizations and most churches to provide funding, they say some local residents are stepping forward. One of them, Ed Thompson, 63, of Farmingdale, pledged $50 a month.

“I think they [the Latino immigrants] should be treated like human beings, and they’re not,” he said. “The Hispanic day laborers remind me of the way the Irish were treated 150 years ago.”

But not all residents are disappointed the center may close. Adeline Kuhlenkamp, 78, thinks the United States already has too many immigrants. “Americans are starving,” she said. “Take care of your own.”

The center is seen by some as a success following conflicts advocates encountered when they tried to run hiring sites aimed at getting the men off street corners where they bargain for daily jobs in landscaping and construction. The last one — located off Route 110 in Farmingdale — closed last September, just one month after opening, because of anonymous threats and complaints from residents and businesses.

Opposition from residents

Some residents oppose the sites because many of the laborers are undocumented immigrants who work off-the-books and don’t pay income taxes. Their advocates say they have no legal way of emigrating to the United States, and just want to work so they can feed their families back home. They say contractors should share some blame because they pay the immigrants off-the-books.

The day laborer debate is so divisive that advocacy groups in Farmingdale and Farmingville, where violence has erupted over the issue, have abandoned the idea of hiring sites and settled on opening privately funded community centers where no hiring takes place. Formal hiring sites — some of them funded by local governments — exist in Freeport, Huntington Station, Glen Cove and in cities and suburbs around the country.

For the immigrants in Farmingdale, closing the community center would mean losing a place that has become a gathering point for newcomers often lost in a foreign and sometimes hostile culture, said Gabriel Contreras, 26, a day laborer from Puebla, Mexico.

“It’s like being part of a family,” he said in Spanish.

Added Liotta: “They would lose an identity within this town that is not pro-immigrant.”