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Legal fight over Oyster Bay immigration law splits town

Day laborers stand along Forest Avenue near 11th

Day laborers stand along Forest Avenue near 11th Street in Oyster Bay looking for work. (June 12, 2010) Credit: Rebecca Cooney

Every morning, 25 to 30 men, most wearing baseball caps and work shoes, stand along Forest Avenue in Locust Valley. They turn their heads as cars drive by, watching for landscapers, contractors and homeowners to pick them up for a day's work. A stopped vehicle usually sets off a scramble to the driver's side window.

Neighborhood residents walk by, mostly in silence. Two Oyster Bay Town public safety trucks patrol the street, sometimes parking a few feet from the groups of workers.

Day laborers, residents and the town bureaucracy coexist uncomfortably in Locust Valley.

Now, an unfolding federal court case over an Oyster Bay Town law permitting the ticketing of drivers who pick up the laborers has thrown an already uneasy situation into flux.

Local residents, concerned about traffic safety and the potential for crime at sites where the day workers congregate, are pressuring town officials to resolve the situation. The workers say that, despite a recent ruling blocking implementation of the law, employers remain frightened to stop and hire them. Town officials, meanwhile, are hanging their hopes for getting the workers off the streets on a federal appeal aimed at preserving the new law.

Miguel Cruz, a day laborer who was standing out on Forest one recent Saturday, noted that work has been scarce since the law, which could subject contractors to fines of up to $250, went into effect in September.

The town says it issued 30 warnings, but no tickets, before the law was blocked.

"The contractors don't stop here, because they send letters to the license plates," said Cruz, 26. "They don't want to receive a ticket."

But Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto and many local residents defend the law.

"It's not about punishing people," Venditto said. "We're all in the same hole here."

The dispute reflects debates elsewhere, on Long Island and nationwide - especially with immigration issues drawing more interest - as officials wrestle with laborers' need to find work, contractors' need to find labor, and local residents' concern about safety and security.

Oyster Bay's statute banned job seekers standing on the street from signaling that they're looking for work - including by holding up signs or waving their arms. It also gave the town the power to fine vehicle owners who pick up workers.

But in a May 20 ruling, U.S. District Judge Denis R. Hurley said the town had denied the day laborers their constitutional right to free speech. Hurley ordered the town to stop enforcing the law.

With an appeal by the town pending in federal court and no negotiations currently under way between the town and day laborer advocates, all parties say there is no immediate resolution in sight.

The tensions were obvious on a recent Saturday morning, the biggest day for hiring as local residents seek help with yard work and other tasks.

The first day laborers arrived at 6 a.m., and by 8 a.m. about 30 men had gathered in groups at three intersections along Forest Avenue. Most were in their 20s and 30s.

But with two public safety trucks parked on the street, only three cars stopped the entire morning, and by 10:30 all the laborers had drifted away.

Several nearby residents said they empathized with the workers but said their presence brings noise and makes newcomers to the neighborhood feel threatened.

Mike Vissichelli, who owns two homes located north of Forest Avenue, said he drives his 10-year-old son to a school bus stop six blocks away, because he's afraid of the crowds at the corner.

"It has nothing to do with Latinos," Vissichelli said of his concerns. "It's a safety issue. What if one of these [stopping cars] runs off that road? I just hope there isn't an accident one day."



SEPTEMBER 2009: Oyster Bay Town passes a law aimed at keeping day laborers off public streets. The law banned certain actions by job seekers, including waving arms or signs, and gave the town the power to fine drivers that picked up day laborers.

MAY 18, 2010: After talks between the town and day laborer advocates fail to yield a compromise, the New York Civil Liberties Union files a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on behalf of two groups representing day laborers. The suit accuses the town of violating day laborers' free-speech rights and targeting them on the basis of race.

MAY 20: U.S. District Judge Denis R. Hurley issues an order stopping the town from enforcing the ordinance because its wording is too broad. "This statute, and what it attempts to preclude, is not finely tailored to the situation," Hurley said.

JUNE 1: Hurley issues a new order extending the ban. That opens the door for Oyster Bay to petition the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

JUNE 22: Town files a brief responding to the day laborer groups' claims and presents its arguments for appeal.

JULY 12: Attorneys for day laborers file a response to the town's appeal, arguing for dismissal of Oyster Bay's counterclaims.




Both sides remain in a holding pattern while the appeals court decides whether to take the case. One recent case that Town Supervisor John Venditto says the town will use in its argument involves day laborers in Redondo Beach, Calif. A federal appeals court ruled June 9 that Redondo Beach could place limits on where day laborers may seek work, reversing a lower court's decision.