The hodgepodge of U.S. immigration laws, policies and practices is well-illustrated in this Southern California community of millionaires and blue-collar workers.
Last month, Orange police seized eight illegal immigrants waiting for work outside a Home Depot and turned them over to federal officials for deportation to Mexico. Not far away, a city-sponsored day laborer center helps employers find workers, some of them illegal.
The contrast encapsulates the pressures and competing demands on many cities around the country.
Often, politicians are under public pressure to crack down on illegal immigrants, who are frequently accused of loitering on street corners or living in dangerously overcrowded houses.
At the same time, politicians are facing demands — from business owners who need willing labor, and from an increasingly numerous and vocal Hispanic electorate — to help illegal immigrants earn a living and feed their families.
“If the feds could get their act together and control immigration, things would go a lot smoother for these localities,” said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in Washington. “The local communities are on the front lines and they’re left to deal with this. It’s an unfair burden and it poses a lot of difficult moral choices” for cities.
In Gaithersburg, Md., a city-sponsored day labor center shut down within months after residents protested. The city of Farmingville, N.Y., used a zoning ordinance to shut down a boarding house for 60 people, many of them undocumented workers, despite warnings from activists that it is illegal immigrants who are doing the landscaping, roofing and painting around the Long Island town.
The conflicting policies are acute in Orange County, home to rapid demographic change and birthplace of the Minuteman Project, a citizen movement to patrol the Mexican border and keep illegal immigrants out.
The city of Orange — which has a population 138,000 and is about one-third Hispanic, not counting illegal immigrants — operates a day laborer center to help line up jobs for workers in construction and landscaping. The center includes a bathroom and a bike rack, and costs the city nearly $38,000 per year. Workers feel safe enough to congregate there.
Meanwhile, police have turned over 80 suspected illegal immigrants to the U.S. Border Patrol since last summer, said Sgt. Dave Hill. The immigrants, mostly men, were arrested for soliciting work on private property and were turned over because they did not have proper identification.
Hill said the city established the day labor center in 1989 to prevent such soliciting and arrested the workers only after receiving hundreds of complaints about public urination and drinking. Police first tried warnings and telling day laborers about the work center, he said, but eventually had to crack down.
The city is not required under federal law to turn suspected illegal immigrants over to federal authorities, but it does so anyway as a matter of city policy, said Mayor Mark Murphy.
“If you break the law in Orange ... and you don’t have legitimate ID, you will be cited and turned over,” he said.
Illegal immigrants in the community know their presence causes tension, but say they have little choice.
“I know the white people are thinking it’s wrong because there are too many people and it looks bad,” said Miguel Angel Vasquez, a 32-year-old illegal immigrant who has been in the country for 11 years. “But we need a job.”
If Orange is trying to find a middle ground, the nearby cities of Costa Mesa and Maywood are moving in opposite directions.
An upscale city about 10 miles south of Orange, Costa Mesa recently authorized police to receive training in enforcing immigration law. The city also disbanded its day labor center after 17 years because it was “city-subsidized competition” for a private temp service, said Mayor Allan Mansoor.
“Just because the federal government dropped the ball doesn’t mean that we should sit idly by,” he said. “We need to stop making excuses as to why we’re not upholding the law and start looking for ways to uphold our oaths of office.”
Sanctuary for migrants
Costa Mesa merchants have complained that business is down sharply because immigrants are afraid to leave their homes.
In Los Angeles County, the 29,000-person town of Maywood has fashioned itself as a sanctuary for immigrants. The city is 96 percent Hispanic, and 70 percent of its residents are not citizens, said Mayor Pro Tem Felipe Aguirre.
Officials recently disbanded a traffic control unit because it was perceived as a threat to illegal immigrants without driver’s licenses, Police Chief Bruce Leflar said.
And three years ago, he said, the city ended its traffic checkpoints for driver’s licenses, registration, insurance and drunken driving because they were catching a large number of illegal immigrants.