Police have begun arresting day laborers in Woodside, Queens, for minor offenses. The practice marks a distinct change from the tolerant attitude authorities have shown in the past, according to laborers who look for work in the area.
As many as 300 day laborers, many of whom are undocumented Latinos, wait every morning along a stretch of Roosevelt Avenue for building contractors who drive by and offer short-term demolition and construction jobs. Residents and business owners have complained, but police rarely make arrests, except for clear violations such as public urination or drunkenness, the day laborers said.
The workers also complain that the arrests, along with an apparent increase in the number of traffic tickets given out to contractors who block traffic while picking up laborers, have slowed employment.
“It’s getting to be pretty scary,” said Fidel Liberato, a day laborer from Mexico. “They’ve arrested people before, but only for people who behaved disrespectfully.”
A police spokesman said that six men were arrested May 28 for obstructing vehicular traffic at 37th Avenue and 69th Street, just off of Roosevelt Avenue. He declined, however, to provide additional data on recent police activity related to day laborers in Woodside, or to clarify whether the arrests indicate a change in the police department’s approach toward day laborers. Calls to the mayor’s office and Office of Immigrant Affairs were not returned.
Workers said the actual number of men arrested was between 10 and 12, and that four others received summonses. At least four of those arrested have not returned to Roosevelt Avenue, according to Juan Valentin, a community organizer for the Latin American Workers Project, based in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Valentin has been meeting with the day laborers as part of a local campaign to establish a center that would help protect the workers’ rights.
Luis Sotelo, a day laborer from Peru, said he was 10 yards away when police stopped a group of men on a corner recently who did not seem to be breaking the law. An officer arrested six of the men who could not produce residency documents, and two others received summonses, Sotelo said. “We are here to look for work,” he said. “Contractors don’t come here now because the police are right there.”
Day laborers regularly risk working for contractors who refuse to pay, or to provide medical coverage in case of a workplace injury. But the men on Roosevelt Avenue say that when they do get paid, they receive much higher wages than they would working in a bodega or restaurant.
Other parts of the city where day laborers congregate don’t appear to have experienced police crackdowns, according to Valentin. Another advocate, Rev. Terry Troia, who runs Project Hospitality, a service center on Staten Island, also said she had seen no increase in police activity.