Hypocrisy in Herndon

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

IN THE ABSENCE of workable national policy, the debate over illegal immigration is riddled with hypocrisy. That hypocrisy is now on lurid display in Herndon, the little town in western Fairfax County that became a flashpoint in the national debate on the issue when it opened a day labor center in 2005, triggering an apoplectic response from the Minutemen and other anti-immigration forces. Last year, local candidates who opposed the center (and illegal immigrants) won a close election, took over the Town Council and vowed to shut the facility. But guess what: It turns out they didn't really mean it.

Herndon's experience is a distillation of the collision between ideology and reality in the immigration debate. Herndon's Town Council members denounced the use of taxpayer money to fund the worker center. No matter that the center's orderly procedures represented an obvious improvement over the chaotic daily scramble for jobs in a 7-Eleven parking lot that preceded the center's opening; Herndon officials pretended that barring illegal immigrants from the center was the principled thing to do.

But when Fairfax County called Herndon's bluff recently and announced that it would cut off funding for the center early next month, Herndon buckled. In a letter to Fairfax officials, Herndon Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis, who campaigned against the center, pleaded for an "amicable" settlement that would restore its funding, at least for the time being. His fear is that a shutdown of the center would force scores of job-seeking immigrants onto streets and parking lots -- that it would reinstate, in other words, the conditions that made the labor center necessary in the first place. The reality is that those conditions are not about to change, given a dynamic local economy and the demand for immigrant labor.

Some members of the Town Council continue to insist that the center can bar illegal immigrants. Three times in the past year, they've sought a new operator that would screen out undocumented workers. So far, no suitable candidate has emerged. What's more, Herndon officials now acknowledge that closing the center or barring illegal immigrants may undercut the town's ability to enforce an ordinance prohibiting employers from picking up day workers on the street. Tonight, the council will probably vote to allow the center to continue operating in some guise.

An average of 125 workers per day use the center, which operates seven days a week. A lottery system helps match laborers and employers. English classes are held daily. Charitable groups distribute food and clothing there. Aside from some grumbles about immigrants cutting through neighboring property to reach the center, there have been few complaints. Railing against the immigrants who use the center helped get the Town Council elected. Governing turns out to be a bit more difficult.

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