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Virginia town tackles immigration

A labor center fuels a debate as it keeps undocumented workers off street corners.

Published June 11, 2007


HERNDON, Va. - A pickup truck pulls up to the green-and-white striped tent where men in paint-spattered work pants lounge on wooden benches, chatting in Spanish and sipping mango juice.

The driver is looking for a painter. In the next car, a man needs someone to rebuild a dock. A young couple arrive in search of movers.

One by one, the men leave for a day's work. By closing time, 11 a.m., 30 employers will have hired 50 men.

The labor center was opened to help this small but growing suburb of Washington deal with the influx of workers, an estimated three-quarters of them in the United States illegally, who were congregating on a downtown corner looking for jobs.

It's little different than the 63 centers that have popped up in 17 states - including one in Jupiter in south Florida - around a country struggling with an illegal immigration problem. But its existence, much like its creation, has been mired in debate, and after just 18 months, the future of the Herndon Official Workers Center is uncertain.

A newly elected Town Council wants workers to prove they are in the country legally - a move many fear will push the problem back on the streets.

As Congress continues to struggle on an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, localities across the nation have grown tired of waiting for lawmakers to act, choosing instead to take matters into their own hands.

Thirty miles down the road from the marbled U.S. Capitol building, Herndon officials are trying to curb their illegal immigrant population: adopting English as the official language; training police officers to detain undocumented immigrants; requiring small businesses to employ only documented workers.

"This is definitely an instance of doing things because the politicians aren't, " council member Dennis Husch said. "This town council was given marching orders from the citizens of this community."

But Herndon is discovering that while it may be easier to act locally, the problem is not any easier to solve.

* * *

Herndon was a small farming town until a flurry of high-tech companies began to move into the area in the 1980s and 1990s, creating a building boom of residential communities. The need for construction workers, landscapers and carpenters fueled Herndon's immigrant population.

By 2000, a quarter of Herndon's 22, 000 residents were Hispanic, many from Central America. Now, it's closer to a third.

The immigrant impact can be seen in the long lines at the fish counter at the grocery store on Sunday nights, the enclaves of apartment complexes almost completely occupied by Hispanics and the proliferation of Central American restaurants.

And for years it could be seen at the parking lot outside the 7-Eleven on Elden Street, the main commercial strip through town. That's where 70 or more men would stand each day waiting for work, swarming around cars when a driver approached.

Residents grew frustrated with the trash, public urination and other problems. The town tried to bring some order to a chaotic situation - opening a day labor center on the outskirts of town while also making it illegal to solicit for work on the street.

Support was strong, but opposition was, too.

A group sued to prevent using taxpayer dollars to open a center that it contended would lead to "the illegal employment of undocumented aliens." State and federal lawmakers publicly criticized the proposal. Calls flooded the Herndon Town Hall switchboard, making it inoperable for days.

"We were portrayed as pro-illegal immigration, " former Mayor Michael O'Reilly said. "There could be nothing further from the truth. What we did was try to manage a bad situation."

One hundred twelve workers arrived on that first frigid morning in December 2005. Minutemen, part of a national group that fights illegal immigration, jotted down the license plates of employers. Local contractors started arriving in unmarked vehicles.

* * *

Van Foster doesn't care if the workers are undocumented, and he isn't sure that the town should care either.

"I don't know that it's this town's responsibility, " he said.

Foster, of nearby Reston, just wants his dock rebuilt. So on a recent morning he drove to the center to find an inexpensive carpenter. It was his third trip in a year.

The organization that runs the center agrees with Foster. No one asks the legal status of the laborers. They ask more questions of the prospective employers than the workers.

How much do they pay? Will they provide lunch and transportation? Do they need an English speaker?

Workers are selected based on a lottery system designed to give each of them an equal chance at a job. Sometimes, they are taken out of order if an employer needs a particular skill or wants someone they have hired before.

While the men wait to be hired, they can take English classes taught by volunteers in a nearby trailer or snack on plantain chips, pupusa and beans and rice sold next door.

Some workers interviewed refused to say whether they were in the country legally. Others said they were not worried about the center's future because they had faith God would help them.

"The center is okay for all the people that don't have work, " said Oscar Pardo, 62, a worker who comes to Herndon three months each year from Bolivia. "It's good."

* * *

Just as the country and Congress are divided on the issue of immigration, so, too, is Herndon.

In May 2006, in an election that was largely based on a single issue, voters unseated O'Reilly and two council members on the seven-member board who supported the center.

Over the last year, as the town has tried to take control of its illegal immigrant population, Congress has been unable to agree on how to do that for the nation.

Last week, the Senate failed to approve a bill that would give the nation's 12-million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, increase border security with Mexico and beef up employment verification programs. It would not affect day labor centers.

Frustrated by the federal logjam, Herndon continues to chart its own course.

The town council has asked Reston Interfaith, the nonprofit group that runs the center under a $175, 000 contract with Fairfax County, to start asking workers their status. The group refused.

"We saw no reason to do that, " Reston Interfaith CEO Kerrie Wilson said. "Our purpose is to offer services."

The town council is looking for a new operator, but none has stepped forward.

Officials have not decided what to do if it doesn't find a new operator. Closing it could create other problems.

Recent court rulings around the nation have struck down laws forbidding day laborers from soliciting work on the street - unless localities have provided workers with an alternative remedy, like a day labor center.

While the center's future is unclear, the town's crackdown on illegal immigration is not.

"The rest of the country should take notice what has happened in Herndon, " said Aubrey Stokes, a member of Help Save Herndon, a group formed to oppose the center. "The lesson is that politicians work for people and if they don't do their job, they should be held accountable."

Times researcher Lea Ladarola contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at 202-463-0576 or

Herndon Va.

Total population: 21, 655

Hispanic/Latino: 5, 633 or 26%

Foreign born: 7, 907 or 36.5%

Speak a language other than English at home: 8, 817 or 44.4%

Source: 2000 Census

Herndon Official Workers Center

-Almost 6, 000 employers hired workers for more than 10, 000 jobs in the first year.

-An average of more than 100 workers showed up each day.

-Hiring rates fluctuated between 13 percent and 43 percent comparable to the previous informal site.

Source: Herndon Official Workers Center

Day laborers

-Nationally, almost 120, 000 day laborers are looking for work each day.

-75 percent are here illegally; 11 percent of those have an application pending on immigration status.

-59 percent were born in Mexico; 28 percent were born in Central America; only 7 percent of day laborers were born in the United States.

-49 percent employed by homeowners or renters; 43 percent by contractors.

-Median hourly wage is $10. Most live below federal poverty line.

-Almost half have experienced wage theft - not getting paid after completing the work or being paid less than what was agreed upon.

Source: 2006 National Day Labor Study


[Last modified June 11, 2007, 00:43:36]

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