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June 18th, 2008 12:00 am BETH SLOVIC | News Stories

Hire Ground

From dollars to doughnuts, Portland’s day-labor center opens…finally.

LABOR GAINS: Portland on Monday became one of more than 60 U.S. cities to open an organized site for day laborers. This photo was taken Friday at a news conference on the site.
IMAGE: Maggie Gardner

The scene in the initial hours of Portland’s new day-labor hiring center could have been a moment made for Spike Lee.

There was Margarito, a 62-year-old laborer from Oaxaca, Mexico, in a blue baseball hat and work boots. There was Justin Shear, a 24-year-old Evergreen State College graduate with a clipboard and a red hoodie. And there was Boun Saribout, a 28-year-old Laotian-American and small-business owner, carrying six-dozen doughnuts from his shop around the corner.

Before Shear was hired as one of three coordinators for the new taxpayer-funded day-laborer center, men like Margarito had gathered for years outside Saribout’s Delicious Donuts on Southeast Grand Avenue. The men were looking for construction work and other odd jobs in Portland’s teeming underground economy. But their presence had an irrefutable effect on Saribout’s business, simultaneously driving new customers to his shop and driving them away.

On Monday, the opening day of the new center, there were no Spike Lee-style immigrant vs. immigrant battles or any apparent lingering tensions.

Blame the sleepiness of the men gathered around Saribout on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Everett Street at 7:30 am. Or credit the new center, a fenced-off patch of concrete with a trailer and two port-a-potties for solving Saribout’s dilemma.

The new center represents Portland’s latest effort to deal humanely with one of the nation’s most intractable dilemmas: Illegal immigration and what to do with the undocumented workers who need jobs, but aren’t lawfully permitted to have them.

Margarito, who left school in Mexico before turning 13, is one of those illegal immigrants. He wants to work but he doesn’t have papers. Before Monday he had logged only 10 hours in the previous 15 days, earning $12 an hour by cleaning a house and moving construction materials, he said.

But when Margarito showed up at 7 am at the center after a 30-minute bus ride from the cramped apartment he shares with four adults, he said in Spanish that he was optimistic there would be jobs.

“I need to work,” says Margarito, who asked that WW not publish his last name because he’s in the country illegally. “I’d like to work every day. But you can’t. There’s not enough.”

Portland’s grand immigration experiment, which finally opened six weeks after its planned May 6 start date (“New Tent City,” WW, March 12, 2008), has its inconsistencies.

For example, there’s the concrete buckling beneath Margarito’s feet from the roots of a tree in the northeast corner of the center. “There’s work here,” Margarito says, pointing to the destruction and joking. “We could fix that.”

Yet an undocumented immigrant can’t work for city contractors and receive city wages. Portland lawmakers can, however, create a hiring site for other contractors and employers to hire undocumented workers for their own businesses, though that too is illegal.

The city-funded project follows some federal rules but not others.

Site organizers say they plan to enforce a minimum wage of $10 an hour, well above the state’s $7.95 an hour threshold. They’re also asking employers to sign paperwork to help ensure they won’t take advantage of the day laborers, most of whom are Latino and don’t speak English well.

The site complies with federal disability laws; it has a wheelchair-accessible port-a-potty, a handicapped parking spot and a ramp leading to the front door of the trailer. But organizers aren’t asking workers about their immigration status when they come for jobs.

It’s the jobs workers care about. And to make sure jobs are distributed fairly, organizers at the site have initiated a raffle system. When a new worker arrives, he gets a blue ticket. Names are drawn. When those workers have jobs, more are picked.

Margarito was lucky Monday, winning the raffle in just the second round. Only two people got jobs Monday. Fourteen got jobs Tuesday. Margarito later called his first day at the new site a success.

“For me, I’m very happy,” he says. “It was calm and there were no problems.”

* * * * * * * * * *

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the print version of this story, Boun Saribout was incorrectly identified as a Laotian immigrant. He was born in the United States. WW regrets the error.

FACT: City Council picked VOZ, a local nonprofit, in March to manage the day laborer site with a $200,000 two-year grant. The Portland Development Commission has leased the site to VOZ for $1 a year.
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