TAHOE/TRUCKEE — In Truckee, they can be seen in the downtown Beacon parking lot near the intersection of Donner Pass Road and Bridge Street. In North Lake Tahoe, they stand near the 7-Eleven at the intersection of Coon Street and North Lake Boulevard in Kings Beach.
They are undocumented workers, Latinos mostly, and, as with many communities, Tahoe/Truckee searches to find a middle ground between federal immigration laws and accommodating a significant minority population and labor force.
According to a March 2010 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research organization in Washington, there are an estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States.
Like many municipalities regionally and across the country, North Tahoe and Truckee are grappling with how to interact with the influx of the undocumented labor force.
Truckee Police and the Placer County Sheriff's Office have taken an as-needed approach when confronting immigration enforcement. At the same time, nonprofits such as the North Tahoe Family Resource Center in Kings Beach attempt to channel undocumented labor into positive community service.
NTFRC Executive Director Emilio Vaca said the undocumented workforce — commonly called “day workers” — has proven, as a whole, not to be a transient population that will vanish in the near future. Therefore, it necessitates a long-term approach.
“I think we need to move past the notion that they are going to go away, because they are not,” Vaca said.
Until pragmatic immigration legislation is agreed upon federally, Vaca said the undocumented labor force should be allowed to integrate into current industries for which they are already working — namely construction and contracting work.
Vaca said the family resource center hopes to institute a Labor Workforce Center in the next five or six years, to help both documented and undocumented laborers find work with local employers.
The center, which would be dependent on donations and volunteer support, would be based on workforce centers established by LUPE — La Union del Pueblo Entero — a labor rights group founded in 1989 by labor rights activist Cesar Chavez.
It would provide job placement, trade and leadership skills, legal services, computer literacy and ESL (English as a Second Language) training.
It's important to support undocumented labor — at least within their current spheres of labor — Vaca said, as coping mechanisms for the unemployed are no different whether they be documented or undocumented.
“No work, from a psychological point of view, increases chances for depression and alcohol consumption ... some have had no work for up to eight months, sometimes a day goes by when none of them receive any work,” Vaca said.
In a review of funding, while some services of a labor center are present at the family resource center, Vaca said completion of one will be dependent on financial support from the community over the next few years.
Despite known day labor pick-up locations in Kings Beach and Truckee, local law enforcement will only intervene with enforcement action in two cases: If they are assisting a federal agency such as ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or are applying enforcement due to a criminal incident.
“I'm an equal opportunity provider,” said Capt. Jeff Ausnow of the Placer County Sheriff's Office.
He explained that if there is criminal activity, the sheriff's office will act regardless of the documentation status of the suspect.
Enforcement specifically for resident status is a federal matter, and Placer County will only intervene upon request of a federal enforcement agency.
“It's not a (local) law enforcement question,” Ausnow said.
In Truckee, enforcement operations are similar.
Traditionally, the town's undocumented workforce watches out for itself, said Truckee Police Capt. Harwood Mitchell, and day workers do their best to find employment without interfering with local residents.
“There is some self-policing among that group,” Mitchell said, referring to undocumented workers soliciting at the Beacon lot.
Mitchell made clear, however, to say that officers still monitor the parking lot as they do other neighborhoods and areas of town, and officers do keep tabs on the day workers from time to time.
“We don't have any issues with them; generally they're a good bunch,” said Mitchell.
ICE enforcement operations do occur regularly in the region; however, specific town and city data related to ICE enforcement and removal operations is not available, due to ICE jurisdictional designations not corresponding to city and county lines.
Deportation enforcement and removal statistics from ICE's San Francisco office, serving Northern California and Hawaii, have gradually increased from 2006 to 2011, said Virginia Kice, ICE spokesperson for its western region.
In 2006, the San Francisco office reported 7,269 alien removals; in 2011, that number more than doubled to a record high of 19,120 removals.
As with law enforcement, town officials have taken an as-needed approach when confronting issues of illegal immigration; however, there has been one incident which called for the town to take action.
The incident occurred sometime in 2007, when the day labor force had been located near the downtown train depot parking lot, said Vaca, when an undocumented worker entered a woman's car, thinking she was requesting temporary labor, when in fact she did not. The man — who Vaca said he later found out may have suffered from a mental illness — startled the woman.
When the man understood his error, he exited the vehicle; however, the incident started a public campaign for the group's relocation away from high trafficked areas such as the train depot.
Alex Terrazas, Truckee's assistant town manager, said the town's response was to contract Vaca — who is bilingual — to communicate with the group in order to relocate the workers to their current pick-up site at the Beacon lot.
After two months standing and speaking with the day workers and new arrivals, Vaca said he was able to coordinate the move.
“Some of their concerns for them was that the Beacon lot was too far away, there was poor visibility, but eventually they understood the need for the move and the Beacon lot worked out,” Vaca said.
Since the relocation, both Mitchell and Terrazas said there have been few complaints both from an enforcement and town perspective.
“We've gotten a call now and then, but it seems like it's been working out,” Terrazas said.
Eyeing the future, Vaca said the work labor center could further alleviate undocumented crowding at pick-up sites by allowing potential employers to contract laborers — documented and undocumented — through the center, versus the drive-up and hire locations.
Reflecting on local resident reaction, Vaca said generally residents are empathetic to day laborers, so long as they keep their pick sites clean and are respectful.
“For the most part, there is a sense of compassion for them,” Vaca said.