For Herndon, No News Is the Best News

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Shockingly, Lou Dobbs, the CNN anchorman with a passion for protecting America from illegal immigrants, is not a candidate in next week's Town Council election in Herndon.

The Minutemen aren't on the ballot, either. Nor are the folks from Casa of Maryland, the immigrant advocacy group across the Potomac.

No, when the voters of Herndon go to the polls May 2, they'll have to do without the agitators who descended on the town last year to turn a local dispute over Latino day laborers hanging out in a 7-Eleven parking lot into a symbol of the national debate over immigration.

For that bit of grace, many in the quiet town of 22,000 just east of Dulles International Airport are saying a blessing.

The intense period of media attention that made Herndon the focus of radio talk shows and congressional speeches last year has done its damage.

"It's pit neighbor against neighbor," says Dennis Husch, who has served on the Town Council since 1994 and is running for another term. "We've always been a town where people talked to each other even if they disagreed. Now, one candidate's father-in-law wouldn't even sign his petition to get on the ballot.

"We're at a crossroads in Herndon," says Husch, who was on the losing side of last summer's 5 to 2 council vote to use tax dollars to get the day laborers out of the 7-Eleven lot on Elden Street by creating a facility where employers can find immigrant workers for lawn and house work. "I go door-to-door campaigning, and I'm hearing a lot of 'Throw the bums out.' But whichever way it goes, I just hope the outcome is clear. We need to just say it: We're either not going to allow illegal immigrants to use town services, or we are."

We live, of course, in a world in which reality is increasingly a matter of point of view: Not an hour after Husch said Herndon's "silent majority" would stand tall against illegal immigrants, six other residents gathered at Jennifer Boysko's house to tell me about the "silent majority" that will use their votes to send a message that we were all once immigrants who needed a break.

The residents came together through the letters column in the local weekly, the Herndon Observer, each having written to defend immigrants as people who should be admired for their courage in giving up lives in another country to come here and work for their children's future. Together, these residents created HEART -- Herndon Embraces All with Respect and Tolerance -- and endorsed candidates supporting the immigrants.

"With all the divisiveness after this influx of national, ideologically driven groups, we wanted to come together," says Leila McDowell, who sought to counter the notion that immigrants are bringing crime to Herndon. "This is still a place where people leave their doors unlocked. Nothing has changed that."

Suzanne Flegal, who volunteers teaching English as a second language at the day-laborer center, says the town's decision to support the immigrants has already paid off. She recalls an incident in which the center staff persuaded two immigrant workers to report to police a robbery that they otherwise would have kept to themselves for fear of being deported. With the workers' help, police caught the robbers and solved a series of crimes.

HEART's members do not deny that the influx of immigrants has caused problems. Some blocks have to cope with overcrowded houses and out-of-control parking. And the situation at the 7-Eleven was untenable.

But Boysko looks at the anger the immigration issue has generated and sees fear. "People see people who aren't like me, and they get nervous," she says. "And then that got manipulated by outsiders. You do get nervous about people you don't know if you don't reach out and learn about them."

No one in the group has won over any neighbors whose sentiments run toward tighter restrictions on illegal immigrants. But Boysko still hires the teenager next door to baby-sit, even though the two families' lawns are peppered with signs for opposing candidates. "We're not going to change each other's minds, but we're still friendly and we talk about everything else," Boysko says.

Long after the cable shows move on to the next topic, after the advocacy groups plot their next publicity stunt, the residents of Herndon have to live with one another.

"This is a town problem, and we will solve it as a town," says Les Halpern, an engineer who has lived in Herndon for three decades. "I'm an immigrant, Hungarian. My father's a Holocaust survivor. I've seen what happens when people focus on one group and demonize them. This is my town and I love it. "

Next week, Herndon voters get to show the outsiders that they'll spend their tax dollars as they see fit, thank you very much.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company