Day Labor Debate Heats Up at City Hall

Houston city council has again delayed a vote on whether to partially fund a day labor center just east of downtown, a facility that caters mostly to undocumented immigrants. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the issue has now turned into a debate about immigration policy and if the city should be funding a center that facilitates the hiring of illegal immigrants.

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Council is deciding whether to approve $100,000 in Community Development Block Grant Funds for the East End Worker Development Center, which processes between 30 and 50 workers a day. The majority of those day laborers are undocumented, which is a problem for city councilwoman Shelly Sekula-Gibbs, who plans to vote against the funding.

"The people of Houston really want is to watch their taxpayer dollars and the idea that we are using federal taxpayer money to support a center that helps find work for a well-known situation with illegal immigrants is especially troubling at a time whenever we are supposed to be working together to solve the immigration crisis."

The city has funded the labor center in the past as a way of keeping day workers off of street corners. Councilwoman Addie Wiseman is also against the funding, but has floated an amendment that would require employers who hire the day laborers to verify that they're documented and can legally work in the United States.

"It's not about immigration. It's about whether or not we are complying with the law. What my ammendment does is allow for us to still have a day labor site but to make sure that it meets all the federal requirements, all of the laws of the United States, including our own. We can't pick and choose."

But councilwoman Carol Alvarado, who is a supporter of the funding, says it's not the city's role to verify if everyone who uses its services is a legal immigrant.

"We don't ask for people's citizenship when they come into our clinics, when they go to our parks. These are all things that are funded with CDBG money. Our police stations, our fire stations, when there are calls for service, they don't ask people if they are citizens, or when people come into the stations they're not asked that, so I don't know why we would start that now."

The company that runs the day labor center wants to use the funding to hire more employees. Walter Jones is with Neighborhood Centers Incorporated and says the facility will stay open even if the funding is not approved.

"This debate is one of a policy level and one that we are not involved in. We want a safe and well-organized facility and we are providing that now and feel comfortable with the services that we are providing."

A vote on the day labor issue has now been delayed twice and will again be on next week's council agenda. Despite the opposition, Mayor Bill White says he has the votes on council to approve the funding.

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