Worker Centers Split Californians Some Local Programs Require Proof of Legal Status, Others Don't; Each Approach Draws Criticism. STREET CORNER CAPITALISM

Article excerpt

ON the edge of a well-known beach here, several dozen immigrants gather each morning in hopes of finding work for the day. They sip coffee, eat bread with jam, and play soccer while waiting for an employer to stop and offer a job mowing lawns, pruning bushes, or working construction.

When one does, the worker is chosen by lottery. It is all neat and orderly, which it is supposed to be, since this is an attempt by local residents to keep day laborers in this tony beach community from lunging at BMWs along Pacific Coast Highway and get them to wait instead for jobs at one site.

It is also controversial. Some of the day laborers are illegal immigrants, and critics say a community, or in this case private citizens, should not be helping illegal aliens get jobs.

Across southern California, and in some other parts of the country, these and other questions are being raised as communities seek new ways to cope with the growing problem of street corner capitalism.

Some of the controversy stems from communities like Malibu and Los Angeles that have set up centers where day laborers are encouraged to congregate regardless of their legal status.

Other towns are drawing criticism for taking the opposite approach. They are prohibiting street solicitation and setting up hiring sites where only legal residents are welcome - a move opponents consider callous and unconstitutional.

The dispute over day laborers reflects all the complexities and conflict of a nation trying to seize control of its borders while seeking to accommodate growing numbers of immigrants.

"Every community has got to come to the realization it is going to have to deal with the situation," says Maggie Vogler, a volunteer at the hiring site in this celebrity-studded community. "We think this is the most humane way."

"That's crazy," says Mayor Don Smith of Orange, a town in Orange County, of the Malibu and Los Angeles approach. Orange last month opened a site for legal day laborers. "We don't want to put legitimate people out of work." The number of day laborers is growing. Authorities attribute the rise to the continuing flow of aliens across the US-Mexican border, general unemployment, and the landmark immigration law passed in 1986.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials say some of the day laborers are illegal aliens who couldn't find normal work because of the provision penalizing employers who hire undocumented immigrants - evidence, they contend, that the law is working.

But immigrant-rights groups say the workers will not go home and are being pushed further underground. …