Herndon Search Comes Up Empty

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2007

Herndon officials are back to square one in their 10-month search for an operator who will bar illegal immigrants from using the town's day-laborer center, and at least one community leader is accusing Fairfax County of obstructing the town's efforts.

Last week the town issued its third request for proposals from parties interested in running the Herndon Official Workers Center, which was thrust to center stage in the national debate over illegal immigration when it opened in December 2005. The center was also a key issue in last year's town elections, in which voters unseated the mayor and two council members who supported it. Their replacements, including Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis, promised changes in the way the center is run.

Reston Interfaith, the social service organization that manages the site under an agreement with the town and a grant from the county, does not require workers to document legal residency. The roughly 115 laborers who come each day to be paired with private contractors or homeowners are asked only for a name, address and telephone number.

Fairfax has extended its agreement with Reston Interfaith in the form of an annual $175,000 contract. The county's actions drew a harsh response from Herndon Vice Mayor Dennis D. Husch, who said in a letter to Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell that Fairfax "has violated the sovereignty of the Town of Herndon" by interfering with its efforts to replace Reston Interfaith at the day-laborer center.

"What is the value of a Town charter if a county can implement unfettered social engineering initiatives within a Town?" wrote Husch, who said in an interview that he was speaking only for himself and not the Town Council.

David Clementson, a spokesman for McDonnell, said Friday that the office received Husch's letter but was unlikely to get involved.

"At this point it appears to be a local government issue," Clementson said.

Herndon's first query for proposals, issued early this year, yielded little interest. Last week, town officials deemed as ineligible two applicants who responded to a second proposal this spring. One of them was Herndon resident and former Fairfax vocational education instructor Dennis L. "Butch" Baughan, who said he wanted to create a workers center that would serve day laborers and also at-risk youths, high school dropouts and others with special needs.

DeBenedittis and Town Manager Arthur A. Anselene were unavailable for comment Friday. Herndon spokeswoman Anne Curtis, citing confidentiality requirements, declined to elaborate on why the two applicants were disqualified. She said the new deadline for applications is July 30.

Town officials began searching informally in October for a new operator. It is not clear why there have been so few potential takers, although some officials speculate privately that it is because many of the laborers are in fact illegal immigrants. If they were turned away, it might be impractical to operate the site.

No one is certain how many workers who use the center on Sterling Road are illegal immigrants. A 2003 Fairfax survey of 200 day laborers at sites in the county found that 85 percent lacked legal documents.

Supporters of Reston Interfaith say a new operator checking workers for documentation would effectively force them back onto Herndon's main thoroughfare, Elden Street, and other locations in town to hunt for work.

The town's unsuccessful search increases the likelihood that Reston Interfaith will remain in place whether DeBenedittis and the Town Council want it to or not. Herndon's agreement with the nonprofit group expires Sept. 15.

A public hearing on the agreement, known as a special exception permit, is scheduled for Aug. 14.

One major incentive to continue doing business with Reston Interfaith is Herndon's anti-solicitation ordinance, which bars day laborers and motorists from striking deals on the streets for employment. Without the day-laborer site, the law would probably be invalidated in court. Similar laws in other communities across the country have not withstood legal challenges.

In March, a Fairfax County District Court judge upheld the law against a challenge from a Reston man arrested for hiring a laborer in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven on Elden Street. But Judge Lorraine Nordlund said the ordinance cleared constitutional barriers only because there was an alternative to the streets for those seeking work.

"If it were not for the labor center, I would have to strike the ordinance," she said.

The man ticketed by Herndon police, Stephen A. Thomas, has appealed Nordlund's ruling to the Fairfax County Circuit Court. A ruling is expected in the next couple of weeks.

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