Council Postpones Vote on Day-Labor Center

Betty Valley spoke against a day-laborer center at a hearing on whether to continue its current operation, require checks of documentation or close it.
Betty Valley spoke against a day-laborer center at a hearing on whether to continue its current operation, require checks of documentation or close it. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Herndon Town Council decided late last night to postpone its vote on whether to continue operating its job center for day laborers, one of the region's first and a flash point in the debate over illegal immigration.

Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis said that after hearing from those who signed up to give their views, there was not enough time for council discussion. He said the vote would be held tonight.

About 45 people had asked to speak last night, and they didn't conclude until about midnight.

Some criticized the center as a symbol of a failed national policy on immigration; others praised it as successful and humane.

Council members were to weigh two scenarios to keep the center open: permitting the center to run as it does now or finding a new operator that will check the workers' legal status to ensure that they are allowed to live and work in the United States.

A third option was shutting down the site. Project Hope and Harmony, a nonprofit, faith-based organization that operates the center, has said checking immigration status is not part of its mission.

"We are not employers," said Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony. "We just connect employers with workers, so it's really not our role to do that."

Yesterday, Project Hope and Harmony's affiliate, Reston Interfaith, said it will close the center when its permit expires next month if not given a a one-year contract to run it under the current terms.

Town Council members -- some of whom were elected last year because of voter displeasure with the center -- have repeatedly sought new operators with little success. The town was to consider last night an application by Dennis "Butch" Baughan, a former teacher who has agreed to check workers' immigration status and wants to expand the center to provide jobs for at-risk teenagers and ex-convicts.

No one is sure how many center clients are illegal immigrants, but a 2003 survey of day laborers across Fairfax County found that about 85 percent lacked proper papers.

The center was established after residents complained that day laborers, who had gathered mostly at a 7-Eleven parking lot on the town's main thoroughfare, were causing a public nuisance. It operated in part with a $175,000-a-year grant from Fairfax County. But after Herndon Vice Mayor Dennis D. Husch said the county's support for the center interfered with the town's sovereignty, county officials notified Herndon Aug. 3 that they were canceling the grant.

Before yesterday's meeting, some council members promised to deliver on their campaign promises.

"This council was essentially elected because the voters of the town decided they didn't want what the prior council had done on this one specific topic," council member Bill Tirrell said. Revisiting the issue "is something the voters of the town wanted us to do."

Tirrell acknowledged that many laborers could return to the sidewalks and parking lots of Herndon if the council decides to require checks of legal status. But the appropriate action, he said, is cracking down through the town's zoning laws, not offering an alternate place to gather.

Officials with Project Hope and Harmony said the center's closure would be a blow to the community.

In addition to employment services, Project Hope and Harmony offers English classes and information about current events and labor laws, Threlkeld said.

"It seems like this council is intent . . . on sending the message of their dissatisfaction with immigration policy. The day-labor site is one more mechanism to do that," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company