Herndon To Keep Day-Labor Center

Town Council members Dennis D. Husch, left, and William B. Tirrell Sr. talk after the hearing on the future of Herndon's day-labor center.
Town Council members Dennis D. Husch, left, and William B. Tirrell Sr. talk after the hearing on the future of Herndon's day-labor center. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Herndon Town Council voted last night to keep open its two-year-old hiring center for day laborers but to find a new manager who will ban illegal immigrants.

Officials say they have an operator in mind, but previous searches have come up empty. Supporters of the center say the dozens of men who use it to find jobs -- many of whom are thought to be illegal immigrants -- might end up back on the streets.

The vote ended the uncertainty over whether Project Hope and Harmony, the faith-based nonprofit that runs the site, will be allowed to continue in that role permanently.

"It will be a big disappointment for us and the workers" when Hope and Harmony leaves, said Bill Threlkeld, director of the group, which is affiliated with Reston Interfaith. The group will consider remaining until a new manager is found but will continue its practice of not checking immigration status.

Council member William B. Tirrell Sr. said "the rule of law" took priority over workers' needs. "The law is the law is the law," he said. "We can't decide by whimsy what laws you're going to enforce."

Meanwhile, the day-labor issue was the subject of a heated meeting in Northeast Washington last night. Many people told D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) that they opposed his plan to set up a multicultural training center in a shopping center off Rhode Island Avenue NE.

Speakers said the center would serve undocumented workers who take jobs that could be filled by community residents.

"This project represents misplaced priorities," said community activist Kathy Henderson.

The Herndon Official Workers Center has been controversial since it opened in December 2005 in response to what many residents said was a public nuisance -- dozens of mostly Hispanic day laborers who gathered on Herndon's main thoroughfare to flag down prospective employers.

It was approved by the Town Council and funded in part with a $175,000-a-year grant from Fairfax County. It was unclear last night whether county funds would still be available.

Six months after it opened, voters elected a new mayor and two new council members who opposed the center, which many residents said had become a taxpayer-funded haven for illegal immigrants. Since then, the center has become a focus of the immigration debate.

The problem, critics said, was the failure to check whether the roughly 120 workers who go there on weekdays are authorized to work and live in the country. Project Hope and Harmony has said that its role is to connect workers with employers, not to check workers' status.

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