In Herndon, Only Feet Away but Worlds Apart

George Taplin of the Minutemen photographs a day-laborer site in Herndon in hopes of getting contractors' license plate numbers.
George Taplin of the Minutemen photographs a day-laborer site in Herndon in hopes of getting contractors' license plate numbers. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By N.C. Aizenman and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 9, 2005

The slate-gray light of a wintry morning hung over the 7-Eleven parking lot just after sunrise yesterday when a murmur rippled through the crowd of men gathered there: "Look, they are coming."

Heads turned in unison to a dozen people moving toward them on Elden Street in Herndon. Although the men's clothing -- work boots and bluejeans -- revealed them as day laborers, the new group wore warm winter coats and snug-fitting gloves and carried cameras with long lenses, a camcorder, a couple of walkie-talkies and a clipboard list of license plate numbers collected on previous visits.

"The day is ruined. They're going to scare off the employers," Alex Aleman, a 32-year-old Honduran in a black ski cap, told his friends in Spanish. "When they come, we don't eat."

It was the start of an almost-weekly ritual in this Northern Virginia town that began in mid-October when locals who object to the informal day-laborer site formed a Herndon branch of the Minuteman Project, a national group that actively opposes illegal immigration.

The Minutemen train their lenses on contractors who drive to the lot at Elden Street and Alabama Drive to hire the day laborers, many of whom are in the country illegally. They say they plan to hand the photographs to the Internal Revenue Service for investigation.

The two groups never speak. Separated by only a few feet, they are worlds apart.

License Plate Numbers

A white van with green lettering on the side moved slowly down Alabama Drive. The letters described services -- painting, construction, remodeling -- but there was no company name. It was the third time it had circled the block in about 25 minutes.

"Doug," called out George Taplin, the leader of the Minutemen, "there's that van again. Did you get a picture?"

Doug Hillgreen lifted a camera hanging by a strap on his chest and snapped a photo of the license plate number of the van.

He reached beneath his jacket, took out a pack of cigarettes and had a smoke. Hillgreen, who works in telecommunications, said his son, 20, had lost two jobs in the past two years -- one at a sawmill and one in construction -- because his bosses hired day laborers.

"It's because of that and for security reasons," he said, explaining his motivation for joining the Minutemen.

When he raised his camera to get a picture of the white van, the driver sped off.

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