Mamaroneck, N.Y.—The landscaper’s pickup truck stopped near a group of men desperate for work, but it was a policeman on a bicycle who approached first.
The officer stared at the driver and slowly circled the truck but didn’t say anything. After he pedaled away one man hopped into the truck for a day’s work trimming hedges or weeding gardens at some of Westchester County’s gracious homes.
However, the encounter was emblematic of the uneasy relationship between day laborers, most of them Hispanic and many of them illegal immigrants, and communities such as Mamaroneck where they gather in parking lots or on sidewalks to solicit work.
With the number of immigrants in the nation’s suburbs soaring, day laborers have become a key element in the debate over illegal immigration. Some towns are trying to accommodate the workers and some are trying to legislate them away.
The tension in Mamaroneck is so strong that, in February, the town prohibited the use of a park as a worker pickup site and began closely monitoring the laborers and potential employers on the street.
On Monday, trial is due to begin on a lawsuit against the town filed by seven day laborers, some of them illegal immigrants.
They seek an injunction against what they describe as official harassment that violates their rights to free speech, free association and equal protection. The workers, all using the name John Doe in the lawsuit, claim the village “has embarked on a deliberate and coordinated campaign to harass plaintiffs and other Latino day laborers to deter them from soliciting work in the village.”
In court papers, one plaintiff claims an officer said to him: “Why don’t you go back to your own country?”
Village lawyer Kevin Plunkett denied any wrongdoing, saying Wednesday that the police presence “was necessary and reasonable.”
“Officers have been very patient and understanding,” he said. “There’s been no misconduct, no targeting.”
Judge Colleen McMahon suggested at a pretrial court session that the immigration status of the plaintiffs could determine the outcome. “Different plaintiffs may have different First Amendment rights,” she said, after noting that each John Doe would probably be asked on the stand whether he is a legal or illegal immigrant.
The day laborers are not demanding that the village establish a hiring site. Their advocates hope to raise enough money to rent a storefront that could provide the laborers with shelter, an organized hiring system, and training in English, health and citizenship, said Mariana Boneo, executive director of the Hispanic Resource Coalition in Mamaroneck.
Until January, men made themselves available to construction or landscaping contractors by gathering in the parking lot at Columbus Park. The plaintiffs said the typical gathering was 50 to 100 workers. Mayor Philip Trifiletti, a defendant along with the police chief, said it got to be 200 at times.
The plaintiffs say the hiring site caused no increase in crime or other violations; Trifiletti said there were incidents of fighting, drug use and harassment of women.
Since the village closed the site as of Feb. 1, the laborers now gather on a street singly or in small groups. The plaintiffs claim that has led to police harassment and to selective enforcement of traffic laws aimed at prospective employers.
On a recent Thursday morning, men looking for work kept an eye out for the police and, out of fear of retaliation, would give only their first names. Each man questioned said he had been harassed.
“They give tickets to the contractors,” Jesus, waiting with several other men outside a service station, said through a translator. “There used to be room for the contractors to stop and there used to be more work. I don’t work every day now.”
Marcos, who said he had a wife and five children in Guatemala, said he no longer earns enough to send money to them. “They can’t rely on me any more,” he said.
Lawyers say there isn’t much specific precedent for the case. In May, a federal judge prohibited Redondo Beach, Calif., from arresting day laborers for violating a local ordinance against soliciting work in public.
Meanwhile, states and communities have been addressing the immigration issue in different ways.
Boneo, who may be a witness at the Mamaroneck trial, said it’s unfortunate the issue has ended up in court.
“There’s going to be a lot of anger,” Boneo said. “It’s too bad the money for this can’t be spent on the workers.”