In the 'Devil's Cave'. Image: CNN.
Yesterday evening, CNN ran a heart-rending story on a group of homeless immigrants living under the porch of an abandoned Plainfield house which they had dubbed 'the Devil's Cave' (see here).
After describing the horrendous conditions into which the men were forced as the result of the economy's downturn, and how they 'propped up their dignity' as a group, the story turns to how their situation was discovered and alleviated.
Carmen Salavarrieta, planning a Christmas party at El Centro, learned from some of those wanting to attend that they were living under the porch.
The rest of the story is how this latter-day Lady Bountiful worked her magic to rescue the men and how Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs chipped in to help.
And that is where the questions start to come up.
As CNN puts it --
"'I came to take them out of the cave and put them in a shelter. They were allowed to stay there only for three days. So we gave them clean clothes, food and they looked like honorable people. But the three days were over and I did not know what to do, I can not let them out in the street again,' [Salavarrieta] said.Those familiar with the provision of emergency housing services will recognize the 'three days' as what is offered to those in obviously emergent need, pending their enrollment in one of the existing, government-funded, assistance programs.
"She was able to put some of the men in a small apartment she owned. Others found places with friends. Plainfield's mayor even chipped in, Salavarrieta said, footing the bill for some hotel rooms."
Standing silently behind Salavarrieta's consternation is the possibility that the reason these men could not be further accommodated is that they are undocumented persons and hence not eligible for these services.
[The matter of undocumented persons in this country is a vexed question, one that we all can hope President Obama will take up with more success than Bush was able to muster. In the meantime, I consider this a story of a HUMANITARIAN response to persons in dire need. Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions ALL lay a burden on their adherents to care for 'strangers among you'. Be forewarned: I will not post comments that contain any anti-immigrant rants. Period.]
Salavarrieta found creative solutions for the men (for at least long enough to get media attention) and even involved Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who '[footed] the bill for some hotel rooms'.
But getting a one-time, heart-tugging story in the media has a troubling aspect: it leaves those who have been charged with doing something about the matter out of the picture and off the hook.
Plainfield probably has hundreds of daylaborers in similar circumstances as the men in this story. Who knows how many of them are living in similar situations? (I have been told that some are in a vacant building on North Avenue directly across from the train station.)
Who is watching out for these people?
Assemblyman Green and Mayor Robinson-Briggs set up a task force to address immigrant issues with great fanfare a year or so ago. Two meetings and that was the last we heard of it.
What is that task force doing about the problems daylaborers are facing?
Assemblyman Green also noted on his blog (see here) that two Plainfielders had been appointed to Gov. Corzine's 'Task Force on Day-Laborers' -- one by the governor, and one at the request of the Assemblyman. Since then, we have heard nothing from the Assemblyman on the matter.
Do we have to wait until what is found under the porch of an abandoned Plainfield house are not disheveled men but frozen bodies?
- CNN: "Recession lands immigrants in 'Devil's Cave'"
- Jerry Green's Page: "Governor Corzine establishes task force on day-laborers"