Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Andres Tobar for Delegate - Virginia 47th District

Rebel Girl seldom makes political endorsements unless there is an obviously ideal candidate. In the case of the Virginia 47th District seat being vacated by Delegate Al Eisenberg, that candidate is Andres Tobar.

Listen up, hermanos y hermanas! If you are a Hispanic Catholic, you should be supporting and helping an hermano de la Iglesia: Andres Tobar is Mexican American and he is an active member of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington. Serves on the Social Justice Committee. He has been running the Shirlington Education and Employment Center, a nonprofit organization that helps the jornaleros (see article below). He is also president of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (VACOLAO) and, as such, has expressed his disappointment in the outcome of the 2008 state legislative session. "This session saw a large number of Virginia legislators introduce over 100 anti-immigrant bills that sent a strong message that Virginia does not welcome immigrants, even though 10% of Virginians are foreign born...VACOLAO is disappointed that the legislature failed to enact even one measure with a positive impact on the immigrant community."

Andres thinks he can do better than that and, after years of advocating for us from the outside, he is asking for a chance to help the immigrant and Latino communities from the inside. We who reside in the 47th District can send him to Richmond by turning out and voting in the Virginia Democratic Party primary on June 9th, 2009. The deadline for registering to vote in this primary election is May 11th, así que pónganse las pilas, hermanos! I don't care who you vote for in the gubernatorial race (at least not yet), pero tenemos que solidarizarnos con este hermano, Andres Tobar, que ha luchado fuerte por nuestra comunidad. Hasta la victoria!

Day Laborers and The Shirlington Education and Employment Center (SEEC)

By Paula Cruickshank
The Advocate
Easter 2009

It is a cold, rainy morning in early November. About thirty men huddle in small groups as they try to keep warm inside an outdoor shelter. Some of them have stood there for hours. A few of them—usually the most determined to work—have been waiting there since dawn. The shelter is located about 50 feet from a busy thoroughfare in Arlington, Virginia. The men inside the open shelter talk quietly in Spanish. Many of them are from Central or South America. Most have risked their lives, often paying smugglers between $6,000 and $10,000 to cross the U.S. border. As the men talk, they often glance at the street to see if anyone has pulled up in a truck or van looking for a day laborer.

Before the shelter was built, Arlington residents and small business owners complained that day laborers were loitering in the parking lots of convenience stores or food markets. Then in 2000, Arlington County approved construction of the Shirlington Education and Employment Center (SEEC). The original mission of the center was to provide a safe environment where workers who are looking for jobs could come to meet with employers seeking temporary workers, explained SEEC Director Andres Tobar. The SEEC center, a non-descript building with a small parking lot in front of it, is within easy walking distance of the day workers’ pavilion; the facility is one block from South Four Mile Run Drive, a noisy road that runs along a strip of repair shops, gasoline stations, and storage centers.

The SEEC office is open from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. The outdoor pavilion opens at the same time but workers can remain there until 4 p.m. Workers must first register at SEEC before they can become eligible for its services. Tobar’s day is busy, and often hectic, as he explains to the day laborers who are new to the center about sign-in procedures and getting an ID card. Another member of the SEEC staff supervises the workers at the shelter to make sure they follow proper procedures. For unskilled labor, prospective employers select the men in the order of a lottery that is held each day at the shelter between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Tobar joked that one of the first words a day worker learns when he is asked whether he can do anything on the job is “yes.” However, if it is a skilled job requiring work experience he does not have, the employer is not likely to call him back again. “These are not on-the-job training positions,” Tobar said. By contrast, skilled workers are referred to employers who then negotiate the working conditions and wages. Temporary jobs vary from construction work, yard work, and domestic services to handyman related jobs. Tobar stressed, however, that SEEC is not an employment agency.

When a worker has purchased a $5 SEEC registration card, which displays a photo and an Arlington address, he becomes eligible for some basic services provided by SEEC as well as by local non-profits and other providers. The Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), operated by a non-profit group and located across the street from SEEC, provides supplemental groceries to low-income Arlington residents. Registered workers from SEEC can pick up groceries at the AFAC food pantry. Along with the registration card, workers also receive a confirmation letter on SEEC letterhead stating that they are actively seeking a job but have not been able to find work on a daily basis. With the letter, registrants can also receive medical services at the Alexandria Free Clinic.

The ID provides no guarantee that a worker will be picked for a job at the center or pavilion, however. If an employer is looking for a carpenter or house painter, he selects the first worker on SEEC’s sign-in list sheet who has identified himself as having the required skills. That is where the training services provided by SEEC come into play. In an effort to teach the workers marketable skills, SEEC holds drywall and bathroom remodeling classes on Saturday mornings. The men practice using mortar on the walls of a makeshift, three-sided, bathroom. The first step for the trainee is to press the ceramic tiles evenly in a row along the wall. After the tiles are firmly in place and harden, the worker removes them so the next worker can practice how to do it. The same procedure is followed for drywall training. The overall goal of the training class is to build the skill sets of day workers and increase their chances of employment, according to Tobar.

Dave Daly, Training Director at Residential Construction Workers Association (RCWA), teaches the men the basics in remodeling. “These are pre-licensed jobs, Class C remodeling,” Daly explains. Although no licenses are necessary to perform drywall and tiling jobs, the men need documents to prove to prospective employers they are legal workers. Dave said the RCWA helps the men get their papers in order and provides them with documentation stating they are trainees who qualify for temporary special student status in the U.S.

In addition to job training, SEEC also offers tutoring services. Dene Garbow is a retired librarian from the National Building Museum who has volunteered at SEEC for three years. The volunteer tutor said she teaches “a floating class,” with the size dependent on how many men have found work for the day. Grabow uses work sheets and picture dictionaries to help teach the men simple English words and phrases. She teaches the men in a small conference room that is sparsely furnished with one long wooden table and eight chairs. One day in her class, an older man in the classroom is struggling to grasp the words and understand their meanings. A handsome, dark-haired young man named Julio seated at the end of the table assists the older gentleman several times, telling him in Spanish what Grabow is saying in English. Julio has been coming to class for about six months, an unusually long time for a program with so many transient workers. Grabow learned that Julio is homeless and sleeps under a bridge at night. When Julio can’t find a job for the day, the SEEC Center is one of the few places he can find that is safe and warm, she said.

Both the economic downturn and the increased level of immigration enforcement activity have made life even more difficult for SEEC’s clients. The lack of steady work has made it impossible for many of the day laborers to pay their rent and buy food. Even worse, some of the men do not have the sizable sums of money needed to pay back the smugglers that they engaged to enter the U.S. That means they not only struggle with financial concerns, but tremendous anxiety about the safety of their families at home, Tobar notes. In the past two years, day laborer jobs at the center have dropped more than 50 percent, according to Tobar. Nonetheless, he tries to remain optimistic about the future. Although economic times are rough, SEEC plans to offer classes to the men on how to start their own businesses.

When the center closes at 11 a.m. on that November day, it is time for the men to leave the warm office space and venture out into the cold drizzle. Tobar watches as they stream out of the office. Some of the men head over to the pavilion and join the small gathering of workers who remain there. At this hour in the morning, it is unlikely that any of the men will find work for the day. Yet many of them, shivering in their lightweight jackets or well-worn sweatshirts, keep looking at the busy road anyway.

Photo: Andres Tobar (speaking) with Chris Zimmerman and Walter Tejada.

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