Day Labor Site Tensions Consume Herndon Race

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 10, 2006

Last summer, Herndon council member Carol A. Bruce turned to a colleague opposed to the bitterly contested new day labor center and said, "Shame on you." This week, she tried a more upbeat message.

At a forum for candidates running in the May 2 municipal elections, Bruce concluded her opening statement by touching on bright spots of the town of 23,000 near Dulles International Airport, such as its restaurants, golf course and annual festival.

"We know how to have fun," she said, resolutely.

The election, the town's first since the council voted 5 to 2 in August to create a place for immigrant day laborers to connect with employers, has been anything but.

As Congress debates fundamental changes in immigration law and hundreds of thousands of immigrants march to demand legal status, Herndon's contest for mayor and six at-large Town Council seats has become a referendum in all but name on the roiling national debate.

Although other issues -- taxes, overcrowded housing and growth -- are part of the conversation, the Herndon Official Workers Center remains the central source of political tension in a town with the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any locality in the Washington area. According to census data, its Latino community grew 264 percent during the 1990s, while the percentage of white residents dropped from 78 percent to 58 percent.

The campaign has been marked by a series of incidents, including an anonymous, automated telephone "push" poll that asked leading questions about immigration and a peculiar string of similarly anonymous postcards that seem to ridicule the challengers. There are also persistent charges -- unsubstantiated -- that money has flowed into the race from national organizations that favor sharp restrictions on immigration.

Four of the five incumbents who voted to approve the center -- Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly and council members Bruce, Steven D. Mitchell and J. Harlon Reece -- are running for reelection, as is one of the panel's two dissenters, council member Dennis D. Husch.

Five challengers have emerged to call for significant changes in where and how the center operates when its town permit is up for renewal in 2007. Most want to eliminate Fairfax County funds devoted to the program and move the operation off its town-owned site to a private location. Others have called for the center to serve only documented workers. A sixth candidate, Robert Rudine, who is active with the Minutemen and Help Save Herndon -- groups opposed to the labor center -- dropped out of the race.

Newspapers and Web sites are swollen with charges and countercharges, demands for apologies and appeals to the better angels of the town's nature.

"Who would Jesus deport: them . . . or you?" one posting asks.

Even subjects not directly related to the worker center, such as overcrowding in boarding and single-family houses, lead back to the same quandry over immigration. At this week's forum, many candidates cast the election in the starkest terms.

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