Arrests of Day Laborers Spark Protest

Edward Hegstrom, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 7

An undercover police tactic that led to the arrests of at least 30 day laborers brought protests Wednesday as immigrant rights activists demanded an investigation.

But the unusual operation brought praise from residents of the neighborhood around Shepherd and Washington, who called it a much-needed crime-fighting measure.

The undercover officers posed as paint contractors last week, luring day laborers into their trucks and arresting them, police said.

Thirty were charged with soliciting work in the roadway, a misdemeanor, and two of those 30 also were charged with drug possession, said Houston police spokesman Lt. Robert Manzo.

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Some of the workers who say they were arrested last week were back in the area this week. A worker who identified himself as Raul Garza said he was arrested at 11 a.m. Friday and held more than 12 hours at a city jail on Mykawa, on the south side. Garza says he was not charged with a crime.

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Though none of the workers was turned over to federal immigration authorities for deportation, their advocates worry that the operation will generate distrust between day laborers and police.

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Lisa Flores, who lives nearby, said she was “ecstatic” that police mounted the operation.

Flores said two men broke into her house in November and threatened her husband with knives, also threatening to kill the baby sitter and Flores’ 6-month-old baby. Flores said she thinks one of the burglars, whom the baby sitter saw in the area recently, gathers with day laborers in the neighborhood.

City Councilman Adrian Garcia, a former Houston police officer, applauded the operation and said day laborers need to stop gathering there.

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The Houston Police Department has a long-standing policy forbidding officers from enforcing immigration laws in most cases, and officers have sometimes assisted day laborers. Last year, officers helped day laborers recover wages from contractors who had failed to pay.

HPD has received many complaints about day laborers, however, particularly around Shepherd and Washington. A community meeting in July drew more than 70 residents.

Officers at the meeting talked about one elderly woman who said she had a $500 water bill in one month because of day laborers drinking from her outdoor faucet and using it to wash themselves.

There also were complaints of drug use, prostitution and burglaries associated with the day laborers.

“It’s a free-for-all in our neighborhood,” Flores said. “As much as people want to make it a race issue, it’s not. It’s a safety issue.”

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