Day laborers center planned in Gaithersburg
Feb. 9, 2005
Sebastian Montes
Staff Writer

The Rev. David Rocha reminds the day laborers coming into the hall of Grace United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg at 7:30 Friday morning to grab a sandwich and cup of coffee before they head out, in the cold, to wait for work.

"This is the time we have more problems with this community," he says. "For some of these people, this is the only real food they have, especially in the winter."

At the peak of the outdoor work season in the summer, almost all of an average morning's 40 workers will find work. He says five of the 15 might find work this morning.

The parking lot on Route 355 is a central location, Rocha says, for day laborers coming from Rockville, Germantown, Damascus and Clarksburg ­ and their numbers have been increasing since the church first opened its doors to them in November 2003.

Jesus, 43, won't give his last name. He is an illegal immigrant who snuck across the U.S.-Mexico border in 1985.

Most of the others waiting in the parking lot don't have documents, either; a position that leaves them exposed to abuse from unscrupulous employers unaccountable for having to pay them fairly ­ or at all.

An empty building a few hundreds yards away could soon become a center for the day laborers, along the same lines as one that was dedicated in Wheaton last week, says Kim Propeack, co-director of community organizing for Casa de Maryland, a community group that focuses primarily on worker issues.

Grace United would work jointly with Casa de Maryland, working as an intermediary between worker and hirer, setting wage standards, hours and labor conditions ­ a system both worker and hirer can approach with a sense of comfort, says Propeack.

The center will also provide English lessons and identification cards that would make bank accounts possible.

"This is a community that has presence and power," says Propeack of the 200,000 undocumented workers in the state. "If they walked away tomorrow, the economy would collapse."

Rocha says that Montgomery County has been very receptive in dealing with day-laborer issues since the morning four months ago when he and the workers found signs posted by county police around the parking lot, warning them that they had two days to stop gathering there.

When the police came, Rocha told them that he was there to work, too and that he would have to be arrested with everyone else.

And so began the dialogue that is leading toward the labor center. The police have come back, Rocha says, "but now it is to work with us."

He hopes the center will be running by next month and is comfortable with the progress right now. But it is still a stressful situation: the day laborers have little to no language skills, many have no documentation, some are homeless and struggle with depression.

"People look at them and turn away; the community is afraid of them," he says. "We can understand that position, and what we're trying to create is a space of growth for both communities to act together. We are going to use it in a good way."

In the meantime, Jesus has to be content to work "lo que caiga," he says ­ whatever falls. One car pulled into the parking lot Friday morning.