Time to settle in Mamaroneck
The New York Times
September 24, 2006
The struggle between Mamaroneck and its day laborers should not have become a federal case. The village should have found a humane, effective way to bring order to the outdoor job bazaar that has assembled for years in its public park, either by giving a hiring site there the amenities and space it needed, or by finding some other, better place for the men to gather. But instead of applying enough energetic creativity to the problem, it chose energetic ticketing and a looming police presence instead, and ended up in federal court in White Plains.
The plaintiffs, represented by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, have accused the village of violating their right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment. (A second argument, invoking the men’s First Amendment rights to speak freely to solicit work, was dropped because it would have required the workers to identify themselves, something they refuse to do, fearing police reprisal and the possible exposure of their immigration status, or lack of it. They are known in court as John Does 1 to 4 and 6 to 8.)
Testimony in the trial ended Sept. 15, and the judge, Colleen McMahon, is expected to return a decision soon. Both sides failed to reach a settlement before trial. They should try again, and keep trying, even while waiting on Judge McMahon. A negotiated agreement that restores civility in the village, and dissipates the rancor, would be far better than a court-imposed victory or defeat for either side.
The experiences of other communities around the country that have grappled, often nastily, with an immigrant influx suggest that there is no reason to believe the Mamaroneck situation will necessarily improve after a court decision. Substituting harassment with intense resentment will not exactly be a victory for the pro-laborer side.
The responsibility for defusing this dispute does not rest solely on the authorities in Mamaroneck, however ill-advised their tactics may have been. The laborers themselves, and those who speak for them, should make every effort to minimize the problems their presence imposes on neighbors, and maximize attempts to create good will.
Many Americans these days are not enthusiastic about immigrants in general and day laborers in particular. Since day laborers are in public view, waiting for work in a way that looks a lot like loitering, many people consider them the unsightly face of immigration, the symbols of a system in chaos. Many can’t understand why men they assume to be here illegally are invoking constitutional protections in a country they have no right to be in.
The plaintiffs may be technically on solid ground — the Supreme Court has ruled that the equal-protection clause applies to any person who is subject to the laws of a particular state. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a person’s a person, no matter how undocumented.
But the laborers are not just in a battle to solicit work; they are fighting for respect and tolerance, and that requires winning over hearts and minds. The places in the country where day laborers are most tolerated, and the safest, are those where they have organized themselves and conspicuously given something back to the communities where they seek their livelihoods. They have cleaned up their street corners, tidied parks and offered their sweat and labor in other ways.
A well-organized cadre of day laborers, engaged with the village, could help everyone find a peaceable way out of the Mamaroneck mess.