Cars and trucks stop in the road near the intersection of Shirlington Road and South Four Mile Run Drive. From the trailhead of the Washington and Old Dominion Trail nearby, dozens of men swarm the vehicles, desperate for a job that will last a single day.
It’s become a common sight at that intersection in recent years. But County Board members are hoping to the day laborers will relocate when construction on the park begins this fall.
At their Tuesday, July 29 meeting, board members voted 4-1 to spend up to $140,000 to build a covered pavilion to serve as a day laborer pickup site. Complete with bathrooms, trashcans, and a water fountain, the semi-permanent facility will sit on the Jennie Dean Park parking lot, near the intersection of Shirlington Road and 27th Street South.
Board chair Paul Ferguson said the new site will give shelter to day laborers and buffer surrounding residential areas from traffic and other activities at the pickup site.
The plan received a mixed reaction, with even supporters pointing out flaws in the plan. “The board very openly, very honestly acknowledged that this is not the perfect solution,” said board member Jay Fisette, who provided the dissenting vote.
“This is only a band-aid,” said Alfred Taylor, president of the Nauck Civic Association.
But representatives of the Shirlington Employment and Education Center, who will monitor the new facility, say it’s a necessary addition. Louis Ramos, SEEC’s executive director, called the current day laborer situation “intolerable.”
“When a town leaves behind a portion of its citizens, it will never become a true community,” he said.
SOME DAY LABORERS are skeptical about how much the new site will help them. “We all want a better center, to really give us work,” said one lman “Some of the people here are illegal,” he explained.
Many come to the country with no idea how to get a work permit, let alone the training necessary to secure full-time employment. Shelter on rainy days would be nice, but most of the men want more than just a roof on the street corner, said the laborer. “It would be good if they help us with some labor skills, or English language skills, basic skills, computer skills.”
Others look at the new plan with contempt. “We’re going to stay here anyway!” yelled one man in the crowd.
“That building is not going to resolve anything,” said a day laborer who identified himself as Jorge. The real problem is that people keep coming from poor countries looking for work, and there’s just not enough to go around. “They don’t know nothing about the United States, and they need jobs,” he said.
Jorge sees the new pavilion as a way for county officials to hide the problem. “They’re going to put makeup on the face of Arlington County, but under the makeup there’s nothing,” he said.
IMPROVING THE COSMETICS of the neighborhood can’t hurt, said Adrian Lee, a 20-year Nauck resident. “I think the pavilion is an excellent idea, as a start.”
But Nauck residents are looking for more from the county too. That neighborhood is home to many long-time residents who feel they haven’t received a fair share of county dollars or attention over the years. The idea of spending time and money providing for day laborers, many of whom are illegal immigrants, doesn’t sit well with some in Nauck, said Taylor. “Take care of home first before taking care of others,” Taylor urged board members.
Many Nauck residents felt betrayed by how quickly board members approved the day laborer project. “It’s ironic how quickly money under the guise, ‘This is what our late chairman wanted,’ was found,” said Taylor, referring to the fact that Charles Monroe asked county staffers to begin looking for ways to deal with the rising day laborer population last year.
Many day laborers are homeless, or rely on overcrowded apartments for temporary shelter, said Lora Rinker, executive director of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network and SEEC board member. That means they need a range of services to help them become self-sufficient.
Focusing simply on helping day laborers connect with employers may not be enough. “Personally, I would say that it isn’t the long-term solution unless they get full-time jobs,” said Rinker. “But on the other hand, if you’re hungry right now you need a job so you can get something to eat.”
BALANCING LONG-TERM and short-term needs proves difficult. “The key is management,” said County Board member Walter Tejada. “The pavilion is a temporary fix.”
But some residents said board members are using the pavilion as a quick fix and a political tool. Conservative activist Robert Molleur said the $140,000 expense won’t provide long-term help.
“Nobody on the staff and nobody on the County Board mentioned anything about citizenship and naturalization,” said Molleur. “They’re not giving those people any hope.”
Representatives from public radio and television station WETA also urged board members to reject the proposal. Day laborers are not likely to stay inside the pavilion, said WETA’s Chief Operations Officer Joe Bruns.
Besides, the pavilion will be open only between 6 a.m. and noon, Monday through Saturday. After that, day laborers will be on their own to find places to wait for employers. That’s one reason Fisette voted against the proposal. “I strongly support the effort and the intent of the pavilion,” said Fisette. But Jennie Dean Park is too far from the SEEC office, he said, and too close to WETA and local businesses.
TO ENTICE DAY day laborers to use the pavilion, police will patrol the Shirlington and Four Mile Run intersection. Employers stopping in the road to pick up workers will be given traffic citations.
The county will also pay for signs notifying potential employers of the new site. “We hope people will obey those signs and instead of picking people up on the street, they will pull into the new pickup area,” said Matt Martin, Arlington Police Department spokesperson.
Police can’t force day laborers to use the pavilion, though. Workers aren’t violating any laws by gathering in their current location. Wven though some day laborers are illegal immigrants, department policy prohibits officers from enforcing immigration law.
There are other legal concerns. Without official contracts or other records of employment, incomes and expenses associated with day labor easily go unreported for tax purposes.
“That’s out of my jurisdiction,” said County Board chair Paul Ferguson. “I do not condone people not paying their taxes, whether they’re an employer or an employee, but I understand people do need to get work.”
Laborers themselves say many who gather in South Arlington don’t have legal work permits.
Ferguson said those are problems beyond his control. “I just don’t see it being under the jurisdiction of a local government,” he said. “I’m not the IRS or the Department of Labor.”