[UPDATED WITH NEW PHOTOS:] Day Laborers Sue Costa Mesa

Protesters in front of Costa Mesa City Hall claim day laborers are singled out by the city's anti-solicitation ordinance.
Protesters in front of Costa Mesa City Hall claim day laborers are singled out by the city's anti-solicitation ordinance.
Photos by Matt Coker

As I was snapping photos of protesters outside Costa Mesa City Hall this morning, a white guy in his 40s was suddenly in my face asking, "What's all this about?"

Informed that day laborers were suing the city, he remarked, "Just round up the fuckers and send 'em back" before storming over in the direction of the police department.

The close talker might be surprised to discover that while nearly all gathered together were brown, they were also students, teachers, lawyers and political activists every bit as American as he is, and they were exercising that most American right to hold their government accountable.

They were there with their signs declaring, "Working is Not a Crime," "Stop Police Harassment" and "Trabajo Dignidad Respeto" to announce a lawsuit against the city's anti-solicitation ordinance, which, according to their telling of how it is applied, should alarm the supposedly strict constitutionalists who gravitate toward teabag rallies, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the California Coalition for Immigration Reform.

The law prohibits any person standing on a sidewalk or in any public area from actively soliciting employment, business or contributions in any manner deemed to be attracting the attention of passing traffic. Violators are subject to $1,000 fines and six-month jail sentences.

That would seem to make political activists, street performers and real-estate-sign spinners subject to being swept up under the ordinance, but, according to Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), only day laborers seeking work have been singled out--a violation, he says, of the First and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution.

Costa Mesa, he said, is the eighth California city to pass such an ordinance, and following the legal intervention of MALDEF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the other seven have drastically re-written their laws or repealed them altogether. "Costa Mesa has a large hurdle to get over with those precedents," Saenz told the crowd gathered for this morning's press conference.

Lake Forest is among the cities to repeal ordinances after being slapped with lawsuits, noted Belinda Escobosa Helzer, staff attorney with the ACLU office in Orange.

The lawsuit, which seeks an immediate injunction to stop the Costa Mesa ordinance, was filed by MALDEF, the ACLU of Southern California and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) on behalf of Asociacion de Jornaleros de Costa Mesa and the Colectivo Tonantzin members who have apparently been restricted from peaceably assembling on public land to express their need to seek employment.

Costa Mesa City Manager Allan Roeder said neither he, the city attorney nor the city clerk had received a copy of the lawsuit as of 3:50 p.m. today. "Once we have a copy of their filing and have an opportunity review the basis for their arguments, we will most likely have a statement," he said. 

Pablo Alvarado, director of LA-based NDLON, told the gathered, who included a dozen or so reporters, in Spanish and English that singling out laborers under the ordinance, which was first passed in 1988 and revised in 2005, coupled with the '05 closing of a job center where laborers could freely gather in Costa Mesa, are part of a pattern that began with Aliso Viejo Minutemen Project founder Jim Gilchrist's "campaign of hatred against immigrants."

People like Gilchrist are not targeting people seeking work, per se, but immigrants, according to Alvarado. "We want to show them we are not fearful of anything," he said to loud cheers.

Saenz said the groups are applying the heat to Costa Mesa because of the "devious means" in which the ordinance has been applied. According to the account of Costa Mesa resident and Colectivo Tonantzin member Gabriela Trujillo: 12 men seeking work at four different locations on Sept. 25, 2009, were hired by men claiming to pay $8 an hour for day work. As the workers were being taken away in a white van, one figured out something was not right and tried unsuccessfully to be dropped off. The men who'd picked them up turned out to be Costa Mesa police officers, and the workers were deported two days later.

"Many see day laborers as a public nuisance or eyesores," said Trujillo. "What I see are men who are trying to feed their families. We need to think of the children left behind and the single mothers."

Tearing up, Trujillo claimed to see the social fallout firsthand as a local junior high school teacher.
 
Asked if lawyers had affidavits from the men who were deported, Saenz brushed the question aside, saying the suit was not about the September incident but the unjustness of the ordinance as a whole.

Costa Mesa Police Chief Christopher Shawkey later told the Weekly the September operation was on solid legal footing. He said his undercover officers visited five locations after receiving 114 complaints from merchants and residents, and that no arrests were made at two spots where laborers sought work.

As for violating anyone's free speech, Shawkey said as long as those soliciting work follow the ordinance, "there's no problem."

Here is the

Costa Mesa's top cop defended the ordinance, saying the city is trying to prevent "aggressive solicitation" by those who, say, step into roadways or otherwise create safety hazards.

"Anyone is free to solicit work in Costa Mesa," Shawkey said. "They just have to follow the guidelines of the city ordinance."

He said his department has gone the extra mile by meeting with church and community groups to explain what is and is not permitted under the ordinance so that they can communicate that to day laborers.

The press conference was preceded by a peaceful march to City Hall from the corner of Newport and Harbor boulevards, and if you're wondering how so many spirited protesters in stodgy Orange County managed to show up this morning, consider this: one young guy waving a sign asked for a plug for the UCLA Downtown Labor Center.


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