Officer Augie Rocha bounces from one location to another like a pinball. He starts his mornings early—usually at 5:30 a.m.—to keep up with the day laborers who begin to congregate throughout the city.
The laborers gather in parking lots, in front of stores and on sidewalks to solicit work. As soon as Rocha rolls up in his police car, dozens of men dissipate. Some stare at Rocha but most avert their eyes and slowly walk away.
“I try to get out and educate them,” Rocha says. “And it gets frustrating sometimes when you tell them you can’t be there and they’re there the next day.”
Fliers translated into Spanish promoting the city-run Resource Center have been doled out. Business owners have erected signs in attempts to keep the laborers from soliciting on their private property. Citations have been given out for nuisances ranging from urinating in public to jaywalking.
Even now—nearly 18 years after the opening of the city’s Resource Center job site—the city is trying to figure out how to deal with the issue.
Since May, Rocha has worked full-time to deal with the problems. Fluent in Spanish, Rocha has interacted with most of the day laborer community, which can consist of up to 200 people from throughout the county.
Rocha’s presence has helped to divert some of the laborers away from private businesses. But when Rocha—the sole officer tasked to deal with the problems in Orange—is out of view, the laborers almost always return to their usual spots.
Not all laborers are troublemakers, says Rocha, who has helped some find medical assistance and encouraged others to report crimes that occur in their communities.
But Rocha isn’t shy about citing people who blatantly ignore the ordinances. Near one entrance of a shopping center on Chapman Avenue and Hewes Street, a white pick-up truck stops to pick up two day laborers under a sign that bans them from doing so.
Rocha, who is watching the transaction in the center, pulls the vehicle over and gives all three of the laborers citations for soliciting on private property. The driver of the car also is cited for speeding and driving without a license and being uninsured.
On a recent morning, Rocha stops at a 7-Eleven on Glassell Street and Katella Avenue. He approaches a group of eight laborers who pretend to wait for the bus. He tells them of new regulations that will go into effect in the second week of January.
A few hours later, some of the men from the 7-Eleven have returned to their usual spot and are avoiding Rocha’s cruiser. Some of them snicker as they walk past the officer.
The more stringent regulations—some of the toughest in Orange County—will allow Rocha and patrol officers to give out more citations. Signs stating that solicitation on private property is banned are largely ignored.
Impeding traffic, intimidation of shoppers and public nuisances are some problems that stem from congregating day laborers. Rocha has caught some laborers wedged between cars at Home Depot, some urinating in plain view of the officer, others ogling at young girls coming out of a dance studio. Coffee cups and trash litter the bushes and parking lot.
“The customers feel awkward coming and fighting the crowds,” says Peter Hwang, who owns Pageant Cleaners at Chapman Avenue and Hewes Street, a popular hangout. “Overall, it’s a strain on our business.”
Hwang steps out of his store and watches at least a dozen men hang out at a nearby Friendly Donuts. More than 60 laborers hang out in the parking lot on the weekends, causing Pageant customers to stop their cars at the curb for quick drop-offs and pick-ups.
“These guys are making some money,” Hwang says. “They have better cell phones than I do. I don’t know how they do it. It’s baffling.”