HOUSTON (CN) – League City and the Texas governor are targeting Latino day laborers by unconstitutionally arresting them for “criminal trespassing” because they look for work on public sidewalks, a workers’ group says in a federal civil rights complaint.
Jornaleros de Las Palmas, or the Day Laborers of Palmas, sued League City, its Police Chief Michael Jez and Gov. Rick Perry for the right to solicit work from public property “without disrupting traffic.” League City is southeast of Houston, halfway to Galveston.
The workers sued Gov. Perry, challenging the constitutionality of a section of the Texas Transportation Code that allows people to solicit “charitable contributions” from public roadways but prohibits them from seeking work.
The Jornaleros, an unincorporated association of Latino day laborers, say Chief Jez began his discriminatory policy in September 2009, ordering his officers to crack down on workers by ticketing them for roadside work solicitation.
“Defendant Police Chief Jez specifically targeted plaintiff’s members because of their race and national origin, reportedly having stated that he hoped his new policy would ‘send a strong message’ to the Latino day laborers, explaining that, ‘[w]hen you go to a country you’re expected to respect their statutes and their community standards,” according to the complaint. (Brackets in original.)
The workers say Jez harassed and intimidated them by arresting day laborers who gather outside a convenience store, with the owner’s permission, to seek work.
Jez also had officers execute an undercover sting against the group by approaching several of its members as they “were standing in a public grassy area off the side of the road,” the group says.
“The undercover officers called out to the day laborers and said they ‘needed men for a paint job.’ The truck drove by the site three times and picked up a total of fourteen (14) day laborers – five on the first drive; five on the second drive; and four on the last drive. When the truck approached them, the day laborers were standing in a public grassy area off the road – not in the street or roadway,” according to the complaint. (Graph 25)
The officers arrested all the workers and charged them with unlawful solicitation by pedestrians.
“Members of Jornaleros de Las Palmas have previously obtained, and desire to continue to obtain, lawful employment by expressing their availability for employment, while standing in public areas in League City.
“To the extent that members of plaintiff Jornaleros would need to step in the roadway to communicate with a stopped driver in order to solicit employment, plaintiff Jornaleros de Las Palmas desire to solicit employment in roadways,” the complaint states.
But Jez refuses to identify an “alternative space” from which the group’s members can “wait for employment opportunities,” the workers say
Out of fear of Jez’s policy, Jornaleros’ members have stopped seek work in the city’s public areas, and “have suffered economic harm” as a result, they say.
The workers seek a declaration that Jez and Perry violated its members’ First and 14th Amendment rights, and a permanent injunction prohibiting them from enforcing the section of the Texas Transportation Code that prohibits them from seeking work in public areas. They also seek rescission of fines and penalties its members have suffered from the illegal policies, and restitution.
The workers are represented by Marisa Bono, with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in San Antonio.