News/US: For Illegals, Help From the Law

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Subject: News/US: For Illegals, Help From the Law
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Oct 11 1999 - 09:22:10 EDT


Although this piece is not specifically about trafficking....the way that
the police reacted to crime against irregular migrants is commendable.

Melanie...............

For Illegals, Help From the Law
Fairfax Officers Assist Workers Cheated on the Job
By Michael Leahy
Washington Post, October 7, 1999

He is no bleeding heart, just a cop, and so the story of this rip-off
shouldn't rankle him any more than any other scam, thinks Harry Foxwell.
Except he can't get it out of his head.

A Northern Virginia contractor drove a group of immigrant workers to
Newport News for several days of work, only to leave them unpaid and
stranded, 170 miles from home. "You believe that?" Foxwell says, grinding
his shoe into the ground as if tiny contractor vermin might be down there.

He's frustrated. Another group of immigrant laborers was taken to New
Jersey and fleeced. The workers won't come forward in either case,
presumably because they're illegal immigrants, says Foxwell, though this
means nothing to him. He just wants to help -- if they'll let him.

He patrols Culmore, a small pocket of Fairfax County where affluence is a
stranger and mistrust of authority a staple of survival. Just the mention
of three initials -- INS -- makes Culmore's jittery men glance over their
shoulders for immigration agents.

"You need to be careful of everybody with power -- police, too," said
24-year-old Walter Gonzalez, an undocumented worker from Central America
who, believing an employer stole from him last summer, did not trust the
police enough to seek help. "It's when you stop being careful and decide to
relax that somebody gets you and deports you."

That attitude echoes through Culmore, an overwhelmingly immigrant community
where people know not to pry into anyone's immigration status, where police
officers help the illegal immigrants who will allow it, and where Foxwell
hunts unscrupulous contractors because the neighborhood's welfare depends
on it. "Comes down to this," he said with characteristic bluntness: "If
people who barely have any money are getting stiffed when they should get
paid, we have more problems."

It's a familiar spiral: despair, drunkenness, domestic abuse, evictions.
"People start feeling angry and depressed, and that's when trouble starts,"
said Foxwell, a Fairfax County officer whose superiors have empowered him
to do what he must to ensure that all Culmore workers get paid.

Said police Capt. Chuck Peters: "If people aren't getting their money or if
they're miserable because they can't support their families, then bad
things can happen. You can get reports of a man beating a spouse, a man
turning to alcohol. . . . We give resources and encouragement to officers
like Harry Foxwell so he can tackle root problems as he sees them."

The buzzword phrase for this is "community policing," and its emergence in
Culmore serves as one more bit of evidence that American policing, like
American politics, is increasingly local. Immigration and Naturalization
Service agents have one agenda; Harry Foxwell has another: to keep peace in
his community.

His techniques won't be found in any police handbook or legal statute.
Foxwell calls or visits employers accused of rip-offs, applying moral
pressure, capitalizing on the power of his badge to drag the reluctant to
the bargaining table.

Sometimes even this won't lure an apprehensive worker into the officer's
office. At 47, an 18-year fixture around Culmore and Baileys Crossroads,
Foxwell is a ruddy-faced man with a bushy gray mustache and no illusions.

"I know a lot of these workers are scared to talk to anybody in a uniform
because they think they're gonna get deported," he said. "I know that some
workers think about coming to see us but aren't sure it's safe. What I hope
is that word is getting out over there that we don't want to deport anybody."

"Over there" is the 7-Eleven parking lot in Culmore -- a huge, if
unadmitted, ad hoc hiring hall where Hispanic laborers assemble each
morning to wait for low-capital contractors who stay afloat on the backs of
immigrant workers. The parking lot is where honest and disreputable
businessmen alike can find the young Walter Gonzalez, who has heard "good
things" about Foxwell and his partner, but even so is leery about relating
his own charge of exploitation. Trust comes hard.

Dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and paint-dotted tennis shoes, Gonzalez stands
amid a hundred or so hopeful men. A van cruises past and the driver leans
out, gesturing at him. Their conversation is quick and furtive.

"Paint?" the man asks.

"I paint, si," Gonzalez says.

"Bueno, okay. Let's go."

"No have papers," says Gonzalez, wanting to make this clear, not needing to
hear any more excuses, several days into his labor, that he won't be paid
because he hasn't produced official authorization to work in the United
States. "No papers."

A little shrug from the man behind the wheel.

Federal law bars an employer from knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant.
But in the parking lot, staying discreet is a way of life. "Climb in," the
man says.

Gonzalez absently fingers the small crucifix hanging around his neck, a
gift from his mother before he left home. To protect you, she'd said.

But it is getting harder to believe in special powers. He'd thought he was
safe in the shadows until what happened in July. After working several
weeks for a company that already had paid him $400 for painting, Gonzalez
went to pick up his pay for two more weeks, but was told, he said, that the
company's expenses had been so high there was nothing left.

Perhaps if he did two more painting jobs, he recalled being told, money
would become available. Later, the company would insist it never refused to
pay him but said he first would have to provide a Social Security number.

"They never asked for those things when they got me," Gonzalez said in
Spanish. "They know . . . I can't give them a Social Security number. They
owe me a lot. Seventy-three hours of my work at nine dollars an hour comes
to $657."

He won't be stiffed like that again. So he repeats to this man in the
parking lot: "No papers."

"Climb in," the man says. Gonzalez does.

Residents of Culmore -- a hardscrabble community of 10,000, 85 percent of
them Hispanic -- typically live payday to payday.

Six months ago, stirred by a growing number of reports of workers being
cheated, Foxwell put out the word that he and his partner would investigate
every charge, regardless of the complainant's legal status. Their chief
hurdle was gaining the confidence of workers scared by federal watchdogs
such as the Department of Labor and the INS.

But Foxwell has won the trust of several, in part by guaranteeing that he
won't reveal identities. Employers, many of whom resent him as a
practitioner of rogue justice, question his legal authority to intervene in
disputes that, on their surface, appear to be civil matters.

"It's a fine line," said Peters, Foxwell's captain. "He's not to be out
forcing the collection of wages, [but] just trying to bring people to the
table. . . . These cases of nonpayment are happening quite a bit."

The black-market labor pool extends throughout the region. Three miles from
Culmore, in the Shirlington section of Arlington, another group of Hispanic
workers gathers daily. Stories of fleecing abound there as well, a problem
endemic to the immigrant labor pool.

Since 1990, a nonprofit group called Casa de Maryland has served as a
hiring hall for day workers in Silver Spring, requiring that employers
comply with wage and payment schedules. Casa represents about 100 workers
daily, handles 300 cases annually and has collected more than $174,000 in
back wages.

Culmore has nothing like Casa -- no hiring hall, no pro bono attorneys.
Just Foxwell.

"Before Harry, there was nobody," said Soledad Lyle, an administrator at
the Culmore Community Action Committee who translates for Foxwell.

The stories never stop coming, though the cultural divide is wide. When a
Salvadoran woman came seeking help, she adamantly refused to give her name,
expressing terror that the INS would find out. "I don't want you telling
him even where I live," she heatedly told Lyle.

Ultimately, the woman poured out her story of being cheated of her pay by a
custodial firm.

Foxwell's partner, Brad Carruthers, paid the boss a visit, listening to his
side of things before pronouncing judgment. "This lady worked for you and
she's owed $500, as far as I can tell," Carruthers, 29, later recalled
saying. "I'm gonna help her arrange for the paperwork so she can take you
to civil court." The boss wrote a check for $500 on the spot.

Some of Foxwell's targets, though, have not hidden their resentment over
his involvement, suggesting it smacks of coercion.

"How would you like it if a cop called you out of the blue trying to get a
deal for a laborer?" fumed landscaper Vinnie Korfonta.

Accused by an employee of failing to carry workers' compensation insurance,
Korfonta was indignant to hear from Foxwell. "Does he have the right to
call?" Korfonta asked. "What law have I broken?"

Korfonta insisted that the laborer -- an undocumented worker named Elmer
Carias who had broken his finger on the job and incurred more than $2,000
in hospital bills -- had been brought in by a subcontractor. "I didn't even
know him as Elmer," Korfonta said. "He was always 'Jose' to me. 'Jose
Number Two.' The subcontractor is the one responsible."

The man Korfonta identified as the subcontractor, Juan Carlos Hurtado, 28,
expressed puzzlement. "I am just a worker like Elmer," he said. "Elmer
brought me to the job the first time. So how could I hire Elmer?"

When the parties finally sat down, Foxwell told Korfonta that Carias's
medical expenses and lost wages amounted to $2,600. Korfonta announced he
wanted to settle, offering the 47-year-old Carias $2,000.

When Carias pushed for more, Korfonta left. A frustrated Carias was advised
he could file a complaint with the Department of Labor, an option he
rejected. "No, no, no," he said, fearful that the INS might get involved.

Labor officials, sensitive to the fact that undocumented workers don't
trust them, vigorously deny they are hamstrung by the INS. They point to a
1998 agreement between the two that says Labor will not divulge the names
of illegal workers to the INS. However, INS officials emphasize that this
does not mean blanket immunity for illegal workers, particularly if the INS
learns their identity elsewhere.

"I'd have to make my clients aware that if they went to Labor, they still
might end up in [deportation] proceedings," said Janet Horman, a lawyer who
heads Culmore's Just Neighbors Ministry. "You can't be sure what happens
when you open that can of worms."

In July, Walter Gonzalez turned for help in getting his disputed $657 to
Jon and Joan Peters, the Falls Church couple whose home he helped paint for
ACE Professional Services. "They worked Walter and the others like dogs,"
said Jon Peters, who paid ACE $1,200.

ACE is owned in part by Taekwondo instructor Young Won Rhee, who did not
return several calls from a reporter. But company official Tom Owens said
ACE was simply waiting for Gonzalez to supply a Social Security number.

Asked why Gonzalez was allowed to work several days without presenting one,
ACE lawyer Keith Moon said, "The company was nice enough to give him a job.
. . . Why didn't he give us the information? I can only assume it's because
he didn't have documentation."

According to Dennis Merrill, an official with the Virginia Department of
Labor and Industry, employers must pay wages regardless of whether an
employee has provided a Social Security number. "We don't get into
immigration issues," Merrill said. "We will collect any wages not paid. . .
. But the worker needs to come to us."

The possibility of approaching a state agency also seemed risky to Gonzalez
("It's the government, right?"). His leeriness of officials extended to
Foxwell, who, as autumn arrived, tried finding volunteer lawyers while
lobbying in his crusty way for Culmore's angry and shortchanged to come
forward.

There are good days and bad, small steps offset by maddening setbacks.
Foxwell passes along word that Korfonta has withdrawn his offer and is
willing to see Carias in court.

Then something happens that feels extraordinary at the Culmore Community
Action Committee. Tuesday afternoon, encouraged by what he has heard from
Carias, Gonzalez comes out of the shadows, shakes Foxwell's hand and dares
to put his trust in the officer.

"Elmer said he's great, so I come," Gonzalez says. "I gotta count on
someone, you know."

Foxwell simply leans forward, gruffly nodding at the translator, "Okay,
have him tell me his story."

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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