New Group Is Sought to Run Labor Center

Workers seeking day jobs in May assemble in Herndon. The town has had a major debate over illegal immigration.
Workers seeking day jobs in May assemble in Herndon. The town has had a major debate over illegal immigration. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Herndon officials, continuing an aggressive effort to curtail illegal immigration, are seeking to replace the nonprofit group that operates the town's center for day laborers with a firm that will require workers to prove they are in the country legally.

Reston Interfaith, a group of religious organizations that manages the Herndon Official Workers Center under an agreement with the town and a grant from Fairfax County, asks that those seeking work provide only a name, address and telephone number.

Town Manager Stephen F. Owen informed Reston Interfaith's chief executive officer, Kerrie Wilson, this month that his staff has begun looking for a new operator to run the workers center like a private employment agency does. Laborers would be required to fill out a federal form that asks for a U.S. passport or combinations of other documents (a driver's license and Social Security card, for example) to prove that they reside here legally and are eligible to work.

Casa of Maryland, which operates three labor sites in that state, doesn't check documents.

Owen also said the town may look for a firm that can provide a new home for the labor center, which is close to residential neighborhoods near the Loudoun County line.

The search for a new operator, which Owen is pursuing at the request of Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis, is the latest in a series of steps taken by the western Fairfax County town to make it less hospitable to illegal immigrants. About a quarter of Herndon's 23,000 residents are of Hispanic descent.

"Illegal aliens need to go home and come back through the front door," said council member Bill Tirrell, who supports a change in the center's management.

On Oct. 10, the Town Council directed Owen to ensure that town contractors and subcontractors do not hire illegal immigrants. The town manager is also required to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving business licenses. Those council moves followed a Sept. 26 vote to apply for a federal program that would train police officers to enforce some immigration laws.

Illegal immigration has roiled local politics since summer 2005, when the council voted to establish a publicly funded center to help the town's largely Hispanic population of day laborers connect with employers.

Before the center was opened adjacent to the former police station, workers gathered in the mornings at a 7-Eleven parking lot to meet employers. Neighbors said the arrangement was chaotic and confusing, and others said the publicly funded center abetted illegal immigration.

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

An average of 132 workers come to the center on Sterling Road each morning, said Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony, which administers the center under the auspices of Reston Interfaith. A relatively small proportion, 37 on average, or about 28 percent, get a job for the day.

About 70 to 80 percent of prospective employers who use the center are not contractors but private homeowners looking for help on renovations or other projects.

No one knows for sure how many of the workers who frequent the center are undocumented. A 2003 Fairfax County survey of 200 day laborers at sites where they gathered for work found that 85 percent lacked legal documents.

Wilson said it is not the center's responsibility to verify workers' immigration status. That is a matter between them and their employers, she said.

"We are not employing people," Wilson said. "Our focus is running a safe site." Asked how a requirement for documents would affect turnout at the workers center, Wilson said she was not sure. "It's possible folks could go back to the street."

Council members have discussed several temporary employment agencies as possible replacements.

The council could move quickly to make a change. The conditional-use permit granted to Reston Interfaith to operate the center expires in September but could be revoked by a council vote. A licensing agreement between the town and the nonprofit group for use of town property could be terminated with 30 days' notice.

Tirrell said the council will proceed slowly. "I don't want to hip-shoot this," he said.

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