Mi Casa Is Not Tu Casa

Protesters say illegals take our jobs, bring in leprosy, and, grrr, sell ice cream from bicycles

"You're hiring the wrong person!" Parsons pipes in.

"These are the most productive workers in the country!"

"They've probably got the worst employer!" Elliott spits back.

Carole Parsons stakes her ground.
C. Stiles
Carole Parsons stakes her ground.
Day laborers meet at the El Sol Center. The Town of Jupiter rents out the space for $1 a year.
C. Stiles
Day laborers meet at the El Sol Center. The Town of Jupiter rents out the space for $1 a year.

"You want to pay $25, $30 to get your car washed? $250 to get your lawn done, when now you're getting it for $90?"

"Yeah! If you'd pay the proper benefits!" Elliott argues.

"Everyone here protesting is enjoying the benefits of them being in the country," the contractor argues back, his voice rising. "It's not right! You should not be intimidating them. They can't even ride down the street without being harassed. Get on the Americans for being lazy and worthless."

Those words are blasphemous. The crowd of protesters gathers around the truck. Three or four of them run to the back of it to jot down the license plate so they can report Eric — to somebody! — for hiring illegals.

"He has no license plate!" one of them cries.

"I knew you'd try something like that!" the contractor taunts, waving the plate from inside the cab but showing only its back side.

Charlie Elliott runs over to the policemen, pointing furiously.

Eric jumps out of his truck, its engine running, to show the cops that he indeed has a plate. Shaking his head, he jumps back in his vehicle and speeds off.

"He's getting rich off the illegals," Elliott mumbles breathlessly.

"Yeah," scoffs Parsons, pushing his glasses up on his nose as he eyeballs the truck peeling out of the parking lot. "The illegals bought him that SUV."

The inside of El Sol looks like a school cafeteria. Men — and four or five women — sit at tables and chat. Or they read newspapers. Some form a snaking line at a food window, where they are served free hot meals and coffee in Starbucks cups. Another line forms for a computer lab, where workers check email or take online English tutorials. Above the computers are signs in Spanish: "Don't use the computers for betting or pornography."

Occasionally, a number is called over a loudspeaker and a worker is selected through a raffle system to go off for work. By 2 p.m., though, most of the men are still sitting around. Chairs go up. Mops come out. An institutional smell, like Pine Sol, wafts through the air.

Before this center opened in 2006, workers would loiter on the side of the road, mostly on Center Street, in hopes they'd get picked up to do some yard work or construction. If a truck pulled over, 20 men might run up to it and jockey for the job. Scuffles occasionally broke out.

It was an untidy sight in this palmy bedroom community, where the median family income, according to Money magazine, is $74,756 a year, the big tourist attraction is a historical lighthouse, and many celebrities — like singer Celine Dion and race-car champ Jeff Gordon — have lived quietly. So the town opted to lease space in its municipal complex to Catholic Charities for $1 a year so the charity organization could open El Sol. Recently, the Catholics turned over management of the center to an independent nonprofit entity created to run it. It is funded entirely by private donations and has only three workers on staff.

Director Mike Richmond, a retired journalist, does not speak Spanish and says he doesn't know details about the laws that regulate immigrant workers. The arcane technicalities are irrelevant to the day-to-day task of running an outpost like El Sol, Richmond says. You want legal information? "You'd have to ask an immigration expert," he says.

In fact, state and federal laws make it criminal for an employer to hire illegal workers , but he'd have to have "actual knowledge" that the individuals are aliens or do it "knowingly." The state statute similarly applies only to employers who "knowingly" hire illegal workers. (The state statute is said by people on both sides of the protest to be largely unenforceable, because federal law preempts it. But it remains on the books.)

Hence, El Sol's don't-ask policy. To register at the center, a day laborer needs only to show proof that he or she lives in Jupiter (most live in neighborhoods on the east side of town). The service is open to anyone who meets that requirement, regardless of their race or heritage, so anyone — black, white, Haitian, male or female, citizen or noncitizen — is welcome. Still, most workers hail from Guatemala.

The center also offers language classes, job skills, legal assistance, and even a psychologist's help. It is headquarters for a marimba band and two soccer teams. Richmond eagerly displays a report showing the value of services it provides estimated at $64,789 per month.

Labor coordinator Dora Valdivia, who immigrated legally from Peru, speaks passionately. "We took a problem and turned it into a good thing," she says. "We are doing the best we can do. That's not to say we have fixed everything — that's not our responsibility. We are a resource center for the neighborhood, for everybody. That's the spirit of the center."

On an average day, Valdivia estimates, about 15 to 20 percent of the workers who show up get hired. That's about 30 out of 150 applicants. In its year and a half of operation, the center has registered about 860 workers and 1,600 employers.

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