By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007
The Town of Herndon announced yesterday that it would close its 21-month-old day-laborer center next week instead of complying with a judge's ruling that the site must be open to all residents, including those who might be illegal immigrants.
The decision to close the site, which became a flash point in the national debate over immigration, was reached late Tuesday by Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis and the six-member Town Council after a 2 1/2 -hour closed-door session. It brings the western Fairfax community virtually full circle in its attempts to regulate -- critics say drive out -- its large population of Latino day laborers. The center was established in late 2005 as an alternative to the streets for laborers and prospective employers to come to terms.
Herndon's experience with the day-laborer center was a bellwether for towns across the country wrestling with national immigration issues. As other jurisdictions try to pass measures targeting illegal immigrants, yesterday's actions in Herndon indicate that courts, and not legislators, might have the ultimate say.
DeBenedittis said that the town has other means at its disposal, such as zoning and traffic ordinances, to accomplish its goals.
"There is no longer a need for the town to support a regulated day-labor site," he said.
Immigrant advocates said yesterday that after the center closes Sept. 14, they expect a return to the chaotic morning scenes in locations such as the 7-Eleven on Herndon's main street, where scores of laborers gathered to try to find work, many seeking construction jobs along the busy Dulles International Airport corridor.
"It was a system that worked really well," said Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony, an affiliate of the nonprofit group Reston Interfaith, which operated the center for the town. "Now it's all crumbled, and we're back to where we were."
At issue was an ordinance the council approved in 2005 as a legal companion to the day-laborer center, barring workers and motorists from striking deals for employment on the streets. The courts have generally required that communities barring public solicitation for work -- a form of speech -- must provide an alternative venue for that speech, such as a hiring site.
As the town enforced the anti-solicitation ordinance, many residents grew resentful of the center. Reston Interfaith, a group of religious institutions operating under a grant from Fairfax County, did not require workers to document their immigration status. Opponents of the center said the town was essentially abetting illegal immigration.
In 2006, voters unseated Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly and two council members who pushed for the center as an alternative to the informal job centers such as the 7-Eleven on Elden Street. DeBenedittis and the new council began searching for a site operator who would check workers' immigration status but could not find anyone.
The town's plan began to collapse last year when a Reston man, Stephen A. Thomas, ticketed for hiring a laborer in the parking lot of the Elden Street 7-Eleven, challenged the law on First Amendment grounds.
A district court found in favor of the town, but Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Leslie Alden ruled for Thomas on Aug. 29. Alden said the anti-solicitation ordinance fell short not only on First Amendment grounds but also under the equal protection requirements of the 14th Amendment. She said the Herndon center was not sufficient to make up for the ban on job solicitation because the town intended to bar illegal immigrants from the site. Alden said the Supreme Court has ruled that the equal protection provision applies to noncitizens as well.
Alden's ruling left DeBenedittis and the Town Council in a dilemma. An appeal could take months, even years. With no one available to operate the center according to its wishes, the town would have to take over the facility. But to preserve the anti-solicitation ordinance, the town would have to open the center to those who might be in the country illegally -- violating a core campaign promise.
On Tuesday night, DeBenedittis and the council decided to pull the plug on the center. DeBenedittis said the town would try to keep informal job sites from popping up by relying on zoning and traffic ordinances.
The council's decision is unlikely to quell debate over the site, which has roiled local politics since it was proposed in 2005.
No one knows how many of the people who use the center -- an average of 120 a day -- are in the country illegally. Some predict friction among police, immigrants and their advocates.
"I think it was a mistake," said former council member Richard Downer. "They're going to force the police department to do things that could create new legal issues. There's a fine line between harassment and enforcement."
Ann Null, a council member who opposed opening the center before she retired in 2005, said she hoped its closing would induce illegal residents in the town to leave the country.
"There's a construction boom in Panama," she said. "They can find jobs in a country where they don't have to learn the language."