To some, day laborers represent the American Dream in action; they are immigrants working hard to make a better life for themselves and their families. To others, day laborers represent individuals flouting the law, congregating in large groups, and sowing the seeds of neighborhood deterioration. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.

The politics of illegal immigration are not the concern of this article. It is a discussion of how the presence of day laborers in a community affects a community and its law enforcement officers.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that as many as 260,000 day laborers assemble every morning looking for work. Most are young, male, illegal aliens who are uneducated and do not speak English. Their lack of skills and illegal status makes them unsuitable for formal employment; therefore they must hire themselves out as manual laborers who work for cash.

Trouble Spots

Day laborers usually congregate in the early morning on street corners or in the parking lots of home improvement or convenience stores. If given the opportunity, they will meet adjacent to stores that specialize in their area of expertise. For example, painters will wait in front of paint stores whereas movers will wait near truck rental depots.

A large number of day workers and potential employers in a small area can create traffic problems. If workers are being picked up and dropped off, there is usually congestion and double parking issues. Unemployed day laborers can also cause loitering issues and problems associated with loitering such as littering, blocked public passage, public urination, public drinking, and inappropriate comments made to passing pedestrians.

Day labor sites not only represent a nuisance for the community and local businesses, they can also be dangerous for the illegal aliens who congregate at them. Laborers who are paid in cash can be robbed at the sites. They can also be struck by motorists, as oftentimes they "swarm" a contractor's vehicle without first checking if it is safe to enter the roadway.

The Wrong Approach

From a law enforcement perspective, the real problem with day laborer sites is that they can lead to the deterioration of a neighborhood. Peaceful, law-abiding citizens can be very uncomfortable with large numbers of young, poor males congregated in a small area. And if trash accumulates and sidewalks are blocked, citizens will begin to avoid the neighborhood.

In a Broken Windows crime model, when the law-abiding people begin to avoid a neighborhood, law breakers begin to move in. Though the day laborers themselves may be involved in only very petty offenses, the cumulative effect on a community can be devastating.

Traditional policing responses usually do not work well at day laborer locations.

Arresting day workers has been shown to be a relatively ineffective policy. Most of the crimes the workers are involved in are misdemeanors. And arrests for littering, public urination, and public drinking rarely yield the type of punitive sentences that will cause a change in behavior. Also, arresting a day laborer can be a frustrating, time-consuming, and fruitless endeavor for a patrol officer. Many day laborers do not have identification and most of those that do are found to be in the country illegally.


Effective Response

A police department that truly wants to address the problem of day laborers must construct a wide, community-based plan.

First, investigate to what extent the community considers the day laborers a problem. Any police response is going to require community support. Unfortunately, no matter what the response, a segment of the community is going to judge you too sympathetic to illegal aliens, and others will resent any action you take against day laborers. Prior to implementing any policy, it is critical for you to understand the community's attitudes toward day laborers and illegal immigration.

You need answers to the following questions: How concerned is your community with day laborers? Are many complaints being received? Who is calling in the complaints? Are the complaints dealing with issues under your purview or do the complaints deal with the larger issue of illegal immigration, which is a federal matter? Where do the day laborers congregate? What makes these areas attractive? Do some areas have problems while some areas do not? Are local merchants benefiting or suffering from day laborers?

Response to day laborers is really up to the community and the agency. The agency must review its policy and determine how to respond to day laborers. Some agencies prohibit their officers from taking action against illegal aliens. If that's the case, then it is unlikely that it will do anything about day laborers or the problems that are generated by their presence.

But even in communities that support illegal immigration, efforts can be undertaken to minimize the adverse effects of day laborer sites. Agencies in these communities can team up with other stakeholders such as community groups, church groups, or government agencies that can be of assistance in formulating or implementing a plan for coping with day laborer sites.

Red Light Districts

For reasons stated above, a policy of arrest does not usually have much effect on day laborer sites. So you need to understand that most policies implemented at the street level will not eliminate day laborers. In many cases the best you can do is contain the problem and minimize the harm. This is not an ideal situation, and it will involve looking the other way when you see minor illegal offenses for the greater goal of curtailing larger crimes.

You can start by organizing and maintaining day labor sites. These "red light districts" of labor will be informal meeting places where day laborers can assemble without having a direct impact on the rest of the community.

Creating such sites may mean diverting traffic or altering parking rules. The sites should have trash containers and portable restrooms. Securing these things is outside the responsibility of you and even your agency, but your agency can assist in identifying and making appeals for these resources. Area businesses that benefit from the work of day laborers may want to contribute necessary supplies.

I realize that some of you may not want to facilitate day labor sites since the presence of many of these workers in the country and hiring them are crimes. But doing so can be quite advantageous to you and the community because it gives you the ability to regulate the sites.

The sites can be subject to posted rules such as the times laborers can assemble and when they must disperse. For example, looking for work two hours in the morning would be acceptable; lingering about all day would not be acceptable. Strict fines could be implemented against employers who seek or pick up workers after the established times.

The sites themselves can be managed by volunteers. A ready source of these volunteers is the members of your community who voice strong concern for the rights and well-being of day laborers.

You can use these concerned citizens as go-betweens and translators. Potential problems can be addressed by forming an advisory committee composed of business leaders, community leaders, religious leaders, and representatives of the day laborers. Concerns about the day laborer sites as well as complaints against abusive employers can be addressed by this committee.

The problems at day labor sites are multilayered and have to be resolved on a number of political and social levels. As politicians and community activists stagger toward a solution, you have to deal with the problems every day.

Your response must be based on the law but also on community values and common sense. Just as the problem is multilayered, your response should be multilayered. Only by working with political groups, religious groups, and community leaders will you and your agency be able to formulate a successful plan to deal with any disorder at day laborer sites.

Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. He can be contacted through