Herndon Zeroing In On Illegal Immigrants

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Herndon's decision Tuesday night to seek federal training for some of its police officers so they can enforce federal immigration law is part of a long-term effort by a new mayor and Town Council to aggressively curb the presence of residents who are in the country illegally.

Two proposals on the draft agenda for next week's council session would intensify the town's scrutiny of private employers. One would require anyone seeking a business license to prove legal immigration status. The other would compel contractors doing business with the town to provide evidence that their employees live in the United States legally.

The measures are likely to enlarge Herndon's role as a crucible in the national debate on immigration policy -- a position that town officials say they were forced into because of inaction by the federal government. The proposals also add fuel to charges from immigration advocates and some residents that Herndon, which has the largest proportion of foreign-born residents of any locality in the Washington area, has become implacably hostile to all immigrants, legal and illegal.

Illegal immigration has been the dominant issue in town politics since summer 2005, when the council voted, after bitter debate, to open a publicly funded center to help workers connect with employers. Before the Herndon Official Workers Center was established, laborers had gathered each morning in a 7-Eleven parking lot to find jobs -- an arrangement that neighbors and officials said was chaotic and confusing. Opponents of the center said that by opening it, the town was abetting illegal immigration.

In May, Herndon voters unseated Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly and two council members who supported the publicly funded facility and replaced them with challengers, including new Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis, who were highly critical of the idea.

Vice Mayor Dennis D. Husch, one of two council members who voted against the labor center last year, said that the new proposals are still "notional" at this point but that the council intends to send a message that illegal immigrants are not welcome in Herndon.

"These [proposals] may never see the light of day," Husch said. "But we need to do something."

Business licenses have traditionally served as revenue-raising instruments, with governments charging owners a set percentage of projected gross sales. But in an advisory opinion this summer, Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell said local governments can withhold licenses from applicants who are not living legally in the United States.

What the contracting measure would accomplish is less clear. Federal law already establishes penalties for employers who knowingly keep illegal workers on their payroll. Herndon's own standard contract language also forbids companies that employ the undocumented from working on major projects. Town Attorney Richard B. Kaufman said the council was interested in "beefing up" the language so that it applied to all contractors who provide services to the government.

The council's 6 to 1 vote late Tuesday authorizes town officials to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to express interest in enrolling some officers in the agency's "287 (g)" program, a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

If the town is accepted into the program, it would negotiate an agreement covering the scope of the training officers would receive -- often in the areas of document identification and cross-cultural communication -- and what the law would empower them to do. In general, those who pass the five-week course are authorized to question or detain people they believe to be in the country illegally, according to ICE descriptions of the program.

In a hearing preceding the vote, supporters of the program said it would take criminals off the streets.

"You guys were elected because you said you would take action," Brenda Kelley, a 21-year resident of the town, told the council. "We all want safe, secure, happy, respectful neighborhoods."

"Herndon has a chance to lend a helping hand to federal immigration agents," Stacey Brooks said.

Jorge Rochac, a Salvadoran immigrant and former translator for the Herndon police department who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat this year, said adoption of the federal program "would tend to alienate the Hispanic community and makes them less apt to cooperate and trust the police."

Former council member John DeNoyer was also critical. "Would I be profiled as a suspected terrorist or illegal alien because I have a beard and often turn brown toward the end of an outdoor summer?" he asked. "Please do not glorify and nurture the xenophobic hysteria that is affecting our town."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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