Hire Calling

Rousting day workers under the banner of a crime crackdown

Monroe Brooks, manager of rental properties in the Montrose area, knew where to head to find a reliable handyman willing to work for a day's pay.

As he had done in the past, Brooks drove to the Magnolia Heights area around Washington Avenue and Shepherd Drive. He recognized his past day laborer, Edward, and pulled off on a side street.

Brooks found out if Edward was available at the usual $6 to $10 hourly wages for mowing, cleaning or carpentry. And in the process Brooks found out first-hand about the Houston police crackdown on this day laborers' neighborhood.

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After no more than two minutes of conversation, Edward and Brooks pulled onto Shepherd at about 8 a.m. Officer Kara Holub drove up in her police cruiser and immediately stopped them.

She ticketed Brooks for blocking a lane of traffic on the side street. He says there was no traffic to be blocked and that Holub did not even have a line of sight onto that street while he was stopped.

Edward, meanwhile, received a ticket from Holub for hitchhiking -- Brooks says he wasn't.

"I wasn't going to argue with her. I took the ticket and went on about my business," says Brooks. He assumes police were tipped to his purpose in the neighborhood when the officer saw the pressure washer in the back of his pickup truck.

"It was just harassment, that's all it was. She doesn't want [the laborer] down there."

Some of the laborers who flock to the inner-city corridor looking for jobs say the police effort to clean up the Magnolia Heights neighborhood is netting hardworking immigrants and their employers.

Juan Rodriguez fled El Salvador ten years ago to escape the civil war and oppression that tore apart his native country. He lives in a small apartment with a Mexican national, and they each work odd jobs to pay the modest rent.

Rodriguez, who arrived illegally, says he now carries work papers. He speaks some English, which nets him some of the better jobs. He says he even pays income taxes.

Like many other immigrants, Rodriguez used to stand on street corners in the ten-block stretch of Shepherd south of Interstate 10, seeking work. He doesn't anymore. He's afraid the police will arrest him, simply because he is an immigrant with limited English skills. He doesn't hesitate to call officers racist, the Hispanic ones even more so than their Anglo counterparts.

"I've seen the guys being arrested, the police giving tickets," says Rodriguez. He describes police as taking a macho attitude with people who don't speak English and don't know their rights. "I think they stop a lot of guys for nothing, just because of their skin color."

Police tell a different story. They say they are using misdemeanor citations -- no more punitive than traffic tickets -- to deal with the chronic citizen complaints they hear from the neighborhood surrounding Casa Juan Diego, a community center on Durham at Floyd that serves the Central American immigrant community and operates a hiring hall for laborers. The tickets are considered a tool, but those citations are not for public intoxication, disorderly conduct or other predictable offenses for neighborhood troublemakers.

Rodriguez says police want day laborers off the street and in the hiring hall. They'd probably prefer to have them out of the neighborhood altogether. But the hall is packed with workers before dawn, its four heat-baked rooms filled with men looking for work with only a single television to pass the time.

There are typically 100 men for 60 jobs each day, Rodriguez estimates. It's too many people fighting for too few jobs, he says. Some men now sleep in front of the hall to be first in line when the contractors begin to arrive each morning. Not getting a job is just as likely as getting one.

"Who can blame a man for going out on the street? He just wants to get a job and feed his family," says Rodriguez, shrugging, as he sits in the airless working hall. A man on the street can catch the attention of those looking for help, Rodriguez says. "You don't have much of a chance here. I'd go out there, but I don't want to be in trouble with the police." Most of the men in the hall, Rodriguez says, fear the police.

It's not difficult to understand why the homes and businesses around Casa Juan Diego might have problems with the immigrant men on the street. Men loiter on the corners for hours at a time. Some are clearly intoxicated.

Business owners in the area have seen the men urinate and defecate on the street, even though Casa Juan Diego opened the restroom-equipped hiring hall last November.

Mothers complain of catcalls and whistles at their preteen daughters. Patrick Coleman of Western Appliance Sales, a 51-year-old community fixture, tells of seeing his company on the nightly City Under Siege news program. The program focused on two day laborers who fought in the lot next door until one cut the other's throat.

"You think customers are going to come in here after that?" Coleman asks. "Channel 26 [Fox News] did a piece on male prostitution out here, and whose sign did they show? Western Appliance Sales. I don't want these guys out here."

Magnolia Heights resident Hiram Butler says male prostitutes move into the area at night, after the police patrols taper off.

"I think prostitution should be legal. I think you should be able to order it over the telephone in any color, shape, size or form, but I don't want it walking through my neighborhood, where it becomes a criminal activity and it becomes a problem," Butler says.

Casa Juan Diego organizer Mark Zwick acknowledges the problems some immigrant men have created for the Inner Loop neighborhood, but he opposes the use of tickets to resolve the issue. Still, it's better than it used to be, Zwick quietly adds.

"They used to be really tough, until we protested strongly," Zwick says of the times two decades ago. "The officers used to take them out, pull their guns out and wave them around and really frighten the men. Now they're a lot more sophisticated about it."

So now the citations, many of them for questionable reasons. Rodriguez suspects many of the immigrant men don't pay the fines or even bother to give officers their real names.

Police say those who fail to pay citations can be jailed, although Rodriguez says the police miss the point. While the officers are busy issuing citations to men on corners seeking jobs, the real lawbreakers are committing crimes in the neighborhoods.

Controlling the problem became important only when the lawyers and judges started moving back into the neighborhood and demanded action, Coleman says.

Police Lieutenant A.R. LaHaie says the crackdown followed citizen complaints. He describes the process as "trying to address a difficult situation before it gets any worse."

Laborers and those seeking to hire them first received police flyers warning them of citations if they refused to use the hiring hall, LaHaie says. "It wasn't as though one day we woke up and decided to issue all these tickets," he says. "We tried to take other steps, but they just were not working." He says police do not ticket those merely standing on the corners, but it is against the law to flag down traffic with the intent to do business.

However, men in the working hall complain some have been picked up simply because of the way they looked, not acted. One 22-year-old Mexican laborer says police picked him up as he walked to a convenience store on Washington last month. He says they held him 30 hours and gave no explanation for the arrest.

Hispanic leaders, such as Johnny Mata of the League of United Latin American Citizens, plan to take up the crackdown issues with Chief of Police C.O. Bradford. Magali Candler, the supervising attorney at Associated Catholic Charities' Texas Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance, says tickets such as those issued in Magnolia Heights raise constitutional issues.

"When I hear something like this, I have to wonder whether immigrants are being treated differently from other people," says Candler. "It reminds me of old vagrancy laws and loitering laws that were struck down because they were unconstitutionally vague and designed to pinpoint homeless people."

Tatcho Mindiola Jr., director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston, says people do not want to deal with the underlying issues of Central American poverty that bring workers here.

"The fact of the matter is the first time you want your yard cut, the first time you want your kids taken care of, the first time you want your tree trimmed, you go out and get the immigrant labor," Mindiola says. "The benefits of immigration still far outweigh any negative impacts that they may have on our society. We continue to focus upon the human elements to the detriment of fixing the economics of the situation."

Brooks retained an attorney to fight his ticket in court -- the American way -- but his lawyer told him there was no point in fighting a traffic ticket.

Rodriguez says he is troubled by the realities of that American way, especially after reading a book describing how this is the nation of immigrants.

"It made me think," Rodriguez says. "If this is the land of immigrants, then why are they treating honest people so bad

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