The Silence in Herndon

Sunday, January 8, 2006

MAYBE IT WAS just the holiday season. But in the three weeks since a day-laborer center opened in the town of Herndon -- the same center that elicited the wrath of anti-illegal-immigrant forces from coast to coast -- the main vibe coming from the town is . . . silence. True, three weeks is too brief a period to draw ironclad conclusions. But signs suggest that the center has brought calm to a situation previously marked by disorder.

It's important to remember how it was in Herndon: scores of day laborers milling about the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, jostling around the cars and pickup trucks of prospective employers -- a survival-of-the-fittest scrum masquerading as an employment bazaar. Because the site lacked any procedure to determine who would be picked for work, mayhem broke out sporadically as workers competed for jobs. In the absence of public toilets, some of them urinated outdoors. There were complaints of drunkenness, rowdy behavior and harassment of women.

At the new day-laborer center at a former police station about a mile from the 7-Eleven, 100 or so workers make their way early each morning, sign in and are issued lottery-style tickets. An orderly drawing of the tickets determines which workers get priority for the jobs available each day. A code of conduct, drawn up by the workers themselves, sets out 30 rules governing behavior and procedures. Disciplinary action, including banishment from the center, can be imposed for trespassing, drunkenness, drugs, weapons, theft, noise, trash, vandalism, sexual harassment, lack of cleanliness, fighting and disorderly conduct, among other sins. English lessons are planned. And the 7-Eleven? It's back to being just a convenience store, and its parking lot is now used only for parking.

Contrast that with the situation across the Potomac in Gaithersburg, where a burst of citizen opposition -- and bungling by local authorities -- has at least temporarily derailed plans for a similar center. That has left several dozen immigrant day workers to gather each day at the town's Grace United Methodist Church, where the arrival of prospective employers, and the lack of any established rules, sometimes provokes scenes reminiscent of the bad old days at Herndon's 7-Eleven. A Gaithersburg task force is studying what to do next and where to locate a proposed center. Most important, the task force is soliciting public input.

The real test for Herndon's new center will come in a few months, with the spring surge in demand for day labor. The center is surely not a panacea for Northern Virginia's dilemma of dealing with undocumented immigrants, nor has it eliminated all opposition. Even now, a handful of vigilantes calling themselves "Minutemen" arrive at the Herndon center each morning to take photographs and shoot video footage and otherwise harass the workers and employers there.

Still, the experience in Herndon, as well as in Silver Spring, Wheaton, Arlington and other places with established day-laborer shelters, suggests the obvious: Dedicated centers are far preferable to chaotic spectacles in the parking lots of convenience stores and churches. Many of the workers at the centers are illegal immigrants, whose swelling numbers attest to the federal failure to control the nation's borders and enact sensible laws. But it is equally true that there is enormous demand for low-wage workers in the Washington area's booming suburban labor markets. As long as that is the reality, day-laborer centers are a big improvement on the alternative.

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