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Immigrant day laborers find shelter in Duluth

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Not everyone sees Maria Garcia as a godsend to her community.

Garcia, who runs a community center serving immigrant workers, is among the growing number of watchdogs trying to ease the sometimes rocky relationship between illegal aliens and their employers. Her role as operator of the center is similar to volunteers handing out condoms to prostitutes or providing clean needles for drug users. She works to improve an illegal but inevitable reality.

Typically, immigrant day laborers loiter around gas stations, apartment complexes and home improvement stores in metro Atlanta, awaiting a needy contractor or homeowner. Many of them can't find jobs without identification and, as a result, are forced to accept under-the-table work.

The center offers an alternative. Each day, approximately 50 men and women arrive at the small white garage off Buford Highway in Duluth. Inside, several rows of chairs serve as a waiting area. Contractors fill out applications specifying what work they need done, how much they're willing to pay, and what safety equipment and training, if needed, will be provided. The center asks that contractors pay a minimum of $10 an hour for at least four hours of work. Garcia then requires a signature and contact number for the contractor or homeowner.

Some critics blame Garcia for contributing to rather than lessening the problem.

"Day labor sites, however well-intended, are in fact encouraging further illegal immigration," says D.A. King, an anti-illegal immigration activist. "It's organized crime."

What's more, opposition to the illegal immigrant work force -- recently articulated in U.S. House legislation that would make it a felony for employers to hire illegal aliens -- is on the rise in Gwinnett County. The county has seen skyrocketing Hispanic growth over the past decade.

Garcia is quick to point out, however, that figuring out an immigrant worker's legal status isn't her burden.

"I'm not the one responsible for hiring workers," Garcia says. "I'm just here to make sure they find a good job where they won't be taken advantage of."

Garcia opened Hispanic Community Support five years ago. She says she came up with the idea after a student in an English class she was teaching broke his leg. He told her he had fallen out of an angry contractor's truck when the contractor refused to pay him for a full day's work.

An immigrant herself, born in Mexico City, Garcia sympathized with the man. She remembers when her ex-husband would come home with $5 in coins as his daily pay.

So Garcia quit her job as a preschool teacher at a Montessori school and, with the permission of a pastor, set up shop in the basement of Calvary Christian Fellowship. About a month ago, the center moved across the street.

The center is funded primarily through donations. The Duluth First United Methodist Church provides around 150 lunches per week for the day laborers, and Starbucks has donated coffee and muffins. United Way has donated supplies, and neighbors have dropped off coats and blankets during the winter months.

"It's nice to have a place with a bathroom to wait for work," says Tomas, a Mexican immigrant who wouldn't provide his last name. "Maria helps us get good work at a fair price."

While there have been several occasions when contractors didn't stick to their written agreement, Garcia says the paper trail she establishes allows her to file a complaint with the Duluth Police Department to ensure a contractor coughs up the promised pay.

But usually, Garcia says, employers are true to their word.

"People want to do the right thing," Garcia says. "And that's what we're trying to facilitate at the center."

GET INVOLVED: For information on how to volunteer with or donate to Hispanic Community Support, call 770-623-4285.

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