Garland, the setting for the cover story in this week's paper version of Unfair Park, finds itself in an awkward position. Like cities and towns across the country that have built labor centers where immigrant workers can congregate, the suburb is caught in the middle of the immigration debate, and federal laws don't provide much guidance.
The local chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps visited Garland's Day Labor Center this fall with videocameras and binoculars, recording contractors' license plates and warning them they may be hiring illegal immigrants. The Minutemen said they chose Garland for their first "Day Labor Watch" after receiving complaints from residents about rising crime in the area. But Garland police spokesman Joe Harn says crime is actually down, and whether or not illegal hiring is taking place, some residents think inviting the Minutemen to town is the wrong way to handle the problem.
"If I were working at the DLC, I'd experience their presence as very intimidating to have non-law enforcement watching me," says Lee Lutz, a Garland resident who has served in numerous volunteer posts, including on the police chief advisory board. "I'd consider that stalking. It says a lot about Garland [that] instead of working through the rule of law, we prefer to bring in vigilantes."
Former city council member Jean McNeal has lauded the Minutemen's visits on her Web site, which she writes under the name Suzy Blitz. She may have even urged the group to come to Garland.
"I support the Minutemen," McNeal tells Unfair Park. "I think there should be a place for workers to congregate that doesn't have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and then be on the city payroll." She declines to say whether she's a Minuteman member, but a city council member says she told him the group would come to Garland before they did, and the Minuteman state director says one of their members is a "former councilwoman from Garland."
Jackie Feagin, a councilman who supported the labor center when the city opened it five years ago, says the city-run center helps people find work and prevents the traffic problems and loitering that plagued the area before. But critics are concerned that what's happening at the labor center might not be legal, since most contractors don't fill out any federal paperwork when they hire people.
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"If we're brokering the transaction, I'd think we have a responsibility to make sure it's done in a legal fashion," says council member Randall Dunning. Sure. But as we found out, that's not all that easy: The Federal I-9 provision, which must be filled out by employers to document workers' immigration status, has a number of murkily defined exceptions, including one for independent contractors and another for individuals performing "casual employment" in private homes. It took numerous phone calls to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to get an explanation of how day laborers fit into those exceptions.
After checking with legal advisors, spokesman Carl Rusnok finally explained that if you hire a guy to mow your lawn or landscape your yard, you don't have to fill out the form. But you would if you hired the same guy to do work in other people's yards as part of a commercial endeavor. And what about the independent contractor exception? He said day laborers don't qualify, though one policy expert I spoke to said they did.
That's apparently what the city of Garland thought too. After the Minutemen's visits prompted day laborers to organize a union and seek guidance from the city, Mayor Bob Day sent them a letter that said, "Federal immigration laws allow contractors to hire day laborers for one-time or short-term jobs without verifying their immigration status." And even if employers are required to use the I-9 forms, a city spokeswoman later told Unfair Park, it's the employer's responsibility, not the city's.
So, it's all perfectly clear, right? No need for any immigration reform in this country. Nope, not at all. Megan Feldman