Are day laborers congregating in front of your local Home Depot?

The media almost always portrays this nation's sharp divide over the question of illegal immigration in one of two ways: They either overwhelm you with numbers, with the sheer weight of the totals generally enough to elicit an almost-involuntary gasp of "Something must be done!"; or they give you the story of a single person, an inevitably poignant tale of swimming upstream against the tide of geography, politics and economics, of risking life and limb to reach a strange and hostile place, perchance to thrive.

And so it is that Americans come to view the issue in terms that are either starkly political or blindly humanitarian, but almost never a combination of the two. That great philosopher, Josef Stalin, once said, "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." So either it's a singular story of humanity or a massive story of, "Oh, the humanity!"

We understand that people who are in this country illegally are living and working among us. All you have to do is stand in line for a few minutes at that ghetto-ass Wal-Mart on Wetmore Road to get the full experience of that. Still, we rarely interact with them, and citizens and noncitizens alike both probably prefer it to be that way.

That civil distance remains largely in place for the great many of us who don't own (or work in) restaurants, produce farms or check-cashing places. But now, there is a new breach in the social wall. The interactions are happening on a regular basis, and rarely have the tenets of the debate been so clearly defined.

A few weeks back, The New York Times published an article about how illegal aliens are congregating in front of Home Depot stores across the country, hoping to pick up day-laborer work from the schmoes who drive in to buy supplies for home repairs and additions. It has become a public nuisance in many places, has sparked heated official debate in others (with some startling results) and has almost certainly caused Home Depot to lose customers, money, and good will.

According to the Times article, men start gathering before dawn in Home Depot parking lots. Some try to catch day work with contractors (who tend to prefer Home Depot over other, similar stores and who knowingly hire illegals), but most approach average customers and offer their services. The going national rate is around $10 per hour, almost double what they could make at a fast-food place.

Some customers are happy to hire day laborers on a cash basis to fix their roofs or to build those backyard decks. But others are turned off by the open solicitation. In some places, the competition for work is so intense that several men will run up to a car as it pulls into a parking space. Home Depot has received numerous complaints on the matter, and many would-be customers said that they were afraid to get out of their cars and simply turned around and left without going into the store.

Oddly enough, the problem appears to center strictly on Home Depots and not on its main competitor in the burgeoning do-it-yourself business, Lowe's.

Home Depot has responded to the situation by hiring private security to sweep the parking lots of day laborers, legal and otherwise. Many simply walk across the street and try to drum up business by shouting at customers. When the company went to local governments to ask for help with the situation, it received, in several communities, a response that can only be characterized as astonishing.

In that wacky, zany state of California, several local governments not only refused to help Home Depot with its problem of loitering, harassment and illegal solicitation; they ordered Home Depot to build--at company expense!--shelters, with water and bathroom facilities, for the laborers. The city of Burbank told Home Depot they would have to build such a facility as a condition for opening their store, but the plan was suspended when citizens complained loudly that the city was "catering to illegal immigrants."

I decided to check this out for myself. I went down to a local Home Depot. Fortunately, I'm blessed with a look that says, "Dumb, lazy and inept--but carrying cash." I actually earned the inept part. I tried to hammer a nail once and ended up with claw marks all over the stud.

(Hey, just imagine what would come up on the screen if you Googled "claw marks all over the stud.")

The first time I went, nothing happened. The next day, two guys approached me. I tried to speak Spanish to them, but I think I ended up saying that their ponytails offended my wheelbarrow. Finally, I took out my notebook and asked if I could interview them. They waved me off, and one guy said something that I took to mean that I was the worst investigative reporter on Earth.

Which is ridiculous, because, as far as I know, Geraldo Rivera is still alive.

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