By N.C. Aizenman and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 15, 2005
An open-air, taxpayer-funded day-laborer center opened before dawn in Herndon yesterday, and although the frigid weather appeared to chill the job market, it did nothing to cool the passions of those on both sides of the controversial issue.
The opening followed months of intense debate as the center became a focal point in the contentious national argument over illegal immigration. Yesterday, activists showed up carrying signs and voicing opinions, leading to one expletive-laced confrontation.
The first four workers arrived on foot about 5:30 a.m., even though the center did not officially open until a half-hour later. Luis Ventura, 31, of El Salvador, who said he had walked for 30 minutes in the pre-dawn darkness, was the first to sign up for a lottery system that would be used to match workers with employers.
By 9 a.m., eight of the 89 workers -- about 9 percent -- got jobs. Officials said a combination of the cold, the media presence and uncertainty about the new site led to the low employment rate, but the workers questioned whether the center would work for them.
While the workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, stood in the cold stamping their feet to stay warm, people both for and against the new site began gathering at the entrance to the center, which is in the back of the old police station on the Loudoun County line.
About two dozen activists from two groups that oppose illegal immigration -- the Herndon chapter of the Minuteman Project and Help Save Herndon -- stood sign-to-sign with members of a recently formed pro-laborer organization, HEART (Herndon Embraces All in Respect and Tolerance).
For the most part, the interaction was spirited but peaceful and nonconfrontational, except for one moment when Bob Rudine, a member of the Minuteman Project and Help Save Herndon, said illegal immigrants "are raping our children."
"Oh, you are a racist," shouted Leila McDowell of Herndon, a member of HEART.
"Man, get the [expletive] out of here," said Marco Del Fuego of Washington, who was carrying a sign that read "Change Your Name, You're Still the K.K.K."
"You get out of here," Rudine said.
"This land we are in is not yours," Del Fuego said, "and it will never be yours, my friend. How do you think the country was built? By slavery. Did you build it yourself?"
The activists were in front of the old police station and the day laborers were in the back, so the workers could not see what was going on between the groups. They just stood waiting for work -- waiting and waiting.
By 6:30 a.m., no employers had showed up, and Luis Ventura was beginning to lose hope. "I don't know if I'm going to get work today," he said, shaking his head.
Then, a little after 7:30 a.m., Ann Csonka of Herndon, a member of HEART, made the first hire, requesting two men to hold up a long HEART banner at the entrance to the center and then do some yardwork and help put up Christmas decorations for $12 an hour.
Ventura, who has three children 6 and younger in El Salvador, was one of the two chosen for the job. For the next two hours, Ventura stood on the curb, holding his end of the banner high as his legs twitched in the cold. "I feel happy. This is a lucky day for me," he said.
The center was approved by the Herndon Town Council in August with the goal of moving the day laborers from the parking lot of a 7-Eleven to a more controlled area. Fairfax County appropriated $175,000 to Reston Interfaith Inc. to open the center. Project Hope and Harmony, which is affiliated with Reston Interfaith, is running the job site.
But by mid-morning, many of the laborers were concerned about the utility of the new center. "This is not going to work," muttered Florentino Santos, 36, of El Salvador. He was unhappy not only about the low number of employers but the lottery system as well. "At least at the 7-Eleven, you could run as fast as possible to be the first to reach the contractor's car. The person with the most energy, or the most intelligence for dealing with employers, had a better chance."
Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony, said that despite its drawbacks, the lottery system was the best option. Picking workers on a first-come, first-served basis would only encourage men to camp out at the center overnight, he said.
Several laborers said they planned to wait at least a month to see whether the center functions well before returning to unofficial sites in search of work. But Nestor Hererra, 25, of Peru, shook his head. "I give it three days," he said. "Desperation will force us."
Meanwhile, back at the entrance to the site, members of the Minutemen bearing signs such as "Control Crime Support Our Borders" and "Enforce Immigration Laws Now" were arriving in shifts to continue their protest. "Herndon is using our tax money to fund an illegal activity," said Diane Bonieskie of Sterling Park, a member of the Minutemen and Help Save Herndon. "You should use it for the many people who come to this country legally.
"I'm here to protest the official opening of the Herndon day-labor site," Bonieskie said. She had a camera around her neck and was holding a video camera in her left hand.
There is still work to be done at the site. There were no portable heaters yesterday, and the plan to have hot food and drinks for the workers was delayed when the food service vendor's vehicle wouldn't start in the cold.
Since October, the Minutemen have been photographing and filming employers who pick up workers at the 7-Eleven. But yesterday, members of the group mostly were training their cameras on the pro-laborer activists.
At one point, McDowell turned to find one of the Minutemen, a tall man in an aircraft mechanic's jumpsuit named Jeff Talley, standing about two feet in front of her and filming her with his video camera. McDowell glared at him. "Why don't you spend your time helping the homeless and the poor?" she asked him. "You have a job. Why are you trying to deny these workers the right to feed their families?" Talley continued to film McDowell without answering.
Talley finally put his camera down and walked back across the street in silence. "I don't ever engage the other side," he said as he reached the curb. "Oh, and she was not accurate when she said I have a job," he added, explaining that he recently learned his company will be relocating from Sterling to Mexico.