by Joan Hennessy
On a chilly November morning, the Shirlington Employment and Education Center was packed with men, their voices filling the rooms with a staccato mix of
Spanish and English. “Up until last year, things were booming here,” said Andres Tobar, executive director of the Arlington County center. It offers English classes and connects
laborers with construction contractors, landscapers, painters and even homeowners. With a slowdown in housing construction, Tobar has seen a dramatic
decrease in jobs, but the laborers keep coming. “We’re still getting close to 100 guys on any given day.”
A nonprofit funded by individuals, associations and Arlington County, the center often is a first step for laborers looking for work. The men are not asked
if they are in the country legally, Tobar said. “There is a significant gray area.” Some people are waiting for their work permits to arrive, he said. Others
have temporary protective status that has expired but will be extended eventually.
If a contractor specifies he needs to ensure that every person is a documented worker, Tobar tells the laborers, “You need to be able to prove you are here
legally.”The impact of illegal immigrants on public services has fueled a growing crackdown among Virginia localities. But their advocates say that illegal immigrants
don’t qualify for unemployment compensation or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Much of the help they do get is from ministries and nonprofits that
offer food, clothing and housing assistance.
Legal and illegal day laborers earn about $10 an hour, or sometimes $18 or $20 for skilled craftsmen. Some employers don’t pay promptly, and Tobar calls to
make a plea for the laborer. “We’re not lawyers,” he said. “But we talk to them.”
Just outside the center, a Hispanic man recently approached Tobar to ask for a different type of help. He’d been mugged, the man explained as he lifted a knitted cap, revealing a bruise on his forehead. Tobar pulled out his wallet and gave the man a $5 bill. “They have no protection,” he said.
Tobar sees no resolution to the debate over illegal immigrants, “only opposition to existing situations.”
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