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Federal Appeals Court Upholds Decision Striking Down Law Targeting Latino Day Laborers

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today upheld a lower court’s ruling affirming the right of Latino day laborers to seek work in public spaces in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The decision follows a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that a town ordinance prohibiting people from soliciting work had violated the First Amendment.

“Oyster Bay enacted an unconstitutional law directed specifically at hard-working day laborers and Latinos in particular,” said NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg. “It was designed to prevent such workers from entering the town and seeking employment within the town, and the court properly invalidated it.”

For two decades, Latino day laborers have made their living in the Long Island town of Oyster Bay gathering together to solicit work. But in 2009 the town passed a law that targeted these laborers and attempted to remove them from the sidewalks where they seek work. The ordinance prohibited standing on the sidewalk to solicit employment and barred drivers from stopping to hire these workers. It would have had a devastating effect on the workers, who typically depend on temporary jobs and frequently lack transportation to seek work elsewhere.

Supposedly enacted to make sidewalks and streets safer for pedestrians and traffic, the ordinance extended well beyond safety issues and violated the First Amendment by outlawing basic speech such as “waving arms,” “making hand signals,” “waving signs” and “jumping up and down.” It criminalized this speech in “all of the areas dedicated to public use for public street purposes” including parks, sidewalks, medians and curbs. It criminalized a wide variety of constitutionally protected speech that presents no threat to traffic safety, such as students soliciting cars for a high school carwash fundraiser. The ordinance came amidst a spate of local laws that overstepped constitutional boundaries in singling out immigrants for differential negative treatment.

“At a time when the President continues to attack immigrant communities, today’s decision signals that the courts remain a bulwark against laws that discriminate against immigrants and infringe upon fundamental rights,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Jordan Wells.

In its decision, the appeals court affirmed the Eastern District of New York’s ruling that the ordinance violated the First Amendment, which protects the rights of day laborers to gather in public spaces and ask for work. The lawsuit was filed against the Town of Oyster Bay in 2010 on behalf of the Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley and the Workplace Project, two Long Island organizations that protect the rights of Latino day laborers.

“The court did justice for the day laborers in this case,” said Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley chairperson Luz Torres. “Centro looks forward to working with the town to create a welcoming environment for all members of our diverse community.”

“The Workplace Project is celebrating a victory today for all the day laborers in Oyster Bay and all of Long Island,” said Lilliam Juárez, Director of the Workplace Project. “The court’s decision sends a clear message that all localities have to respect the constitutional rights of the day laborers in freely finding work.”

Lawyers on the case were Arthur Eisenberg and Jordan Wells from the NYCLU; Alan Levine and Jackson Chin from PRLDEF; and Lee Gelernt from the ACLU.

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