'What We Had Here Was a Family'

John Saenz, center, is joined by Vincente Brizuela, holding his 3-year-old daughter Ivette Gutierrez, and others in a march to a new laborer site near a park.
John Saenz, center, is joined by Vincente Brizuela, holding his 3-year-old daughter Ivette Gutierrez, and others in a march to a new laborer site near a park. (Photos By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007

Herndon shuttered its publicly funded day-laborer hiring site yesterday in a publicized move to crack down on illegal immigration, but the controversy seemed likely to continue as dozens of workers marched about a mile and a half to a path beside a park, where they plan to renew their quest for jobs.

Town officials decided last week to close the 21-month-old center rather than comply with a court ruling that determined it must be open to all workers, including those in the country illegally. The ruling also struck down a 2005 town ordinance that barred workers from soliciting jobs on the street, an act that courts have generally upheld as a form of constitutionally protected speech.

But the laborers who used the center decided to stick together in their desire to find work -- back on the street. Guided by representatives from the Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network, they picked a 13-foot-long patch of public land between a curb and the boundary of Alabama Drive Park in central Herndon. The workers said they will be there this morning to begin looking for jobs.

Town spokeswoman Anne Curtis said that people are free to solicit work from inside the space, in accordance with the court's ruling, as long as they do not impede traffic or seek jobs while inside the park.

But a town zoning ordinance prohibits workers from creating a "designated or formalized site" without a special exception from the Town Council, she said. Officials will review the site if they think it becomes formalized, she said. Curtis declined to speculate on what constitutes a formalized site.

Marco Amador, education and outreach coordinator for the national day-laborer network, said that the group's attorneys are studying the zoning ordinance and might challenge it on constitutional grounds. He said that "teams of legal monitors" will watch the site to "make sure the workers' rights are respected."

Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony, an affiliate of the nonprofit group that ran the center, said he and others who helped operate the site will continue working with the laborers as they return to the streets. The workers have appointed leaders to keep their group in line, he said.

"They're forced into a position to demonstrate their own leadership," Threlkeld said. "This is a symbolic shift for them as well as a real challenge to see if they can step up and try and maintain some kind of order in that area."

Yesterday morning, about 50 workers and their supporters came together for the last time under the striped canopy at the official hiring center, which opened in December 2005. Each day, about 100 mostly Latino day laborers waited for jobs that were doled out in a raffle system. The workers were never asked about their residency status; critics said that not asking abetted illegal immigration.

Unlike on most days, however, muffins and fruit were piled on the tables, and workers were decorating signs that they would carry on the way to the new site. "WE ARE YOUR NEIGHBORS," one said. Emotional speeches were given.

"What we had here was not a center," a solemn-faced Martin Rios, assistant director of Project Hope and Harmony, told the crowd. "What we had here was a family."

Still, employers came. About a dozen of the 54 laborers who signed up for jobs went out to work. Among them was Edwin Alvarado, who lives in Sterling.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company