Herndon Debate Casts Siblings as Adversaries

Jorge Rochac supports the center and lost an election bid.
Jorge Rochac supports the center and lost an election bid. (Jahi Chikwendiu - Twp)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

Tony DeBenedittis is known around Herndon as a man with a big heart and a passion for life.

He taught art at Herndon High School for 30 years, worked with poor children in Honduras and spent time as a professional Santa Claus. He designed a new town seal, a compass with scenes from local history in each quadrant and the inscription: "In Our Past Lies The Hope of Our Future."

He is also patriarch of a family divided over the issue that has roiled the small town in western Fairfax County: illegal immigration. His son, Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis, was elected in May largely on his opposition to a day-laborer center established by the town to help immigrant workers find jobs. His daughter, Jennie Albers, is an outreach worker at the center.

Herndon's first family is hardly the only one to feel the ripples of the immigration debate at home. In a town of 23,000, the political can get deeply personal in a hurry. And in a town where 40 percent of the population is of Hispanic descent, it's likely that "nine of ten Hispanic families . . . has one or more illegal relatives somewhere in the vicinity," Salvadoran businessman Jorge Rochac told the Town Council in September.

Rochac, who ran unsuccessfully for council this year as a defender of the labor center and an advocate for bringing immigrants into the town's mainstream, has his own blood ties to the debate. His daughter, Fermina Rochac, works as a zoning inspector for the town, responsible for enforcing laws against crowding in homes where many immigrant workers live.

Rochac supports his daughter's work, although he laments that it has made her unpopular in the Latino community. "That's a tough job," he said. "Raising hell, writing fines, taking people to court."

Fermina Rochac declined several requests for an interview.

Tony DeBenedittis has nothing but praise for his children, but he is troubled by the tone of some of the community discussion, which has generated accusations of racism and xenophobia.

At a Sept. 26 council hearing led by his son, he appealed for compassion and mutual respect as the community struggled toward a solution.

He described some benches in the middle of town that had become a magnet for drinking, loitering and littering by Latino workers. When private owners removed the benches, the problem was gone. But so was an opportunity, DeBenedittis said.

"How much better would it have been if we had been able to explain to those loitering and littering in a compassionate way that that kind of behavior was unacceptable in our culture?" he asked.

What if, instead, residents had reached out "with a friendly smile and a handshake?"

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