Just south of the commuter train tracks in Huntington Station, Long Island, a weary pileup of streets forms a little district of desperation.
Down along New York Avenue, Fairground Avenue and Depot Road, men in groups of a half-dozen or more linger by a gas station, a bar, a tire-repair . They are Latino day laborers, waiting for trucks to pull up with jobs to do.
When times were good, there was lots of work. But hardly anyone is building or renovating now, and the men go days and weeks without being hired. Wages have plummeted, and when a job is done, the men are often paid nothing and told to get lost. The sidewalks they have claimed are small outposts of the national pain created by the burst housing bubble.
The men have no safety net: no unemployment insurance, no food stamps. They are nobody’s responsibility, and nobody pays them much heed, except those who find them distasteful or frightening and have pushed for laws to shoo them out of sight. It’s like this across Long Island. In Huntington Station, jobless laborers sleep in the woods. They do the same out east, in lush Southampton, and in points between.
The presence of an underclass stranded by a lack of work, with no place to exchange sweat and skill for a day’s pay, is an affront to decency in a place that enshrines the work ethic and owes these men so much. In this kingdom of home and lawn maintenance, they blew leaves, trimmed hedges and grass, spread mulch, painted houses and patched drywall. There is little demand for the informal labor market now, and the men who made it work have been left at the curb.
Long Island owes them gratitude, but — gratitude? Are you kidding? The men are lucky they aren’t being harassed and racially profiled by the police, swept into federal custody, as local authorities are doing to Latino immigrants across the country.
Suffolk County has begun a police crackdown on gangs and s in Huntington Station, which are a problem there, as in any poor community. But outreach to day laborers — to help them assimilate, find jobs or housing, or perhaps go home — is harder to find.
There is a fenced lot on Depot Road with benches and portable toilets — a day laborer hiring site supported by Huntington Town. It is not working as well as planned. To gain the tiniest advantage, the men have dispersed ever farther from the site. Even on a bright spring morning, all those men standing around give the neighborhood a feel of disarray and aimlessness.
The same could be said of government efforts to deal with day laborers, which boil down to a question: Do we welcome you, or try to push you off the streets, and the economic ladder?
In places like Huntington and Southampton, some residents are attacking the problem with level heads and kind hearts. Volunteers in Huntington house homeless laborers in churches every night, all winter. Sister Margaret Smyth, a Roman Catholic nun who has spent years serving the poor on the East End of Long Island, works with Southampton’s day laborers, fighting homelessness, hunger and wage theft.
“We’re getting more and more cases of workers not just underpaid, but just plain not being paid at all,” Sister Margaret said. “We take them to court. Poor Southampton court system, I must have 40 cases with them.”
When she’s not being her own nonprofit legal service agency, Sister Margaret is a travel agent, raising money to immigrants air fare home.
“I’ve never bought so many tickets,” she said. “I just bought four in the last week and a half. We’ve gotten very good at it. I joined a club on the Internet, and with Spirit Airlines, I can get a one-way ticket to Guatemala for $120.”
The immigration problem is far bigger than Sister Margaret. It’s a federal failure that has fallen into the laps of local governments. But reform is finally showing signs of moving forward in Washington, and local government would be smart to help it along, starting now.
It could step in to magnify Sister Margaret’s labors. It could support nonprofit agencies and help the men to organize themselves, to run hiring sites across the Island. It could fight the crimes of wage theft and harassment. It could give the men soup. It could abandon reflexive hostility to day laborers as the equivalent of a pest-control problem.
It could act decently, without starting a huge fight over immigration policy.
“We can always pray for a miracle,” Sister Margaret said.