As Workers Gather, Town Watches Eagle-Eyed

Augusto Hernandez, left, collects information from Richard Juarez at the new meeting spot, at the edge of a park.
Augusto Hernandez, left, collects information from Richard Juarez at the new meeting spot, at the edge of a park. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

As the sun rose yesterday, dozens of men gathered at Herndon's new, unofficial hiring site for day laborers -- a dirt path next to a public park -- a day after town officials shut a controversial permanent hiring center a mile and a half away.

Only two of about 50 workers had found jobs as the morning ended, a sign that it may be difficult to mirror the success of the official day-laborer center. On an average Saturday, the center would have helped connect about 45 workers with employers, said Angel Morales, coordinator for the center.

"I talked to some of the guys, and they're expecting the worst," Morales said.

Other signs indicated that the transition will be less than smooth. A woman driving by the new site near Alabama Drive Park paused for about 30 seconds in the road to talk to a worker and was ticketed by a Herndon police officer for blocking traffic.

"They're watching like hawks," said Marco Amador, education and outreach coordinator for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, based in Los Angeles.

At 9 a.m., a town zoning official showed up to inspect a Salvadoran food truck from which the men were buying coffee and sandwiches. About 20 minutes later, the owner closed up shop after he was told that he lacked a special permit.

Although the men were organized and well-behaved, they kept walking on the park grass, where they are not allowed to solicit jobs. Periodically, some broke into song or started laughing loudly, prompting some of their fellow laborers to ask them keep the noise down.

Samuel Nosegbe, 45, who walks through the park every day to get to work, watched as one worker started belting out a tune and several others clapped to the beat.

"They will be here every day? This is wrong," said the Sterling resident. "This is what the town didn't want to happen."

The Herndon Town Council voted this month to shut the nearly two-year-old Official Workers Center, which was designed to keep the workers off the streets, where their informal solicitation for jobs was considered a public nuisance. As many as 130 mostly Hispanic men showed up each morning to connect with employers who needed short-term labor.

Town officials had hoped to limit the center to legal residents by checking workers' documents. But last month, a judge ruled that the town had to provide the space for all workers -- legal or not -- to enforce its anti-solicitation ordinance. Otherwise, the judge said, it would infringe on the workers' constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.

Vice Mayor Dennis D. Husch said he was not thrilled at the notion of dozens of men gathering at a public park but had no choice but to accept it.

"It can't bother me," he said Friday. "They have freedom of assembly."

Still, town officials plan to use other tools to regulate the group. The workers are forbidden from seeking work inside the park or impeding traffic, for example.

Several workers said that they felt harassed and unwanted by the town but that they would keep looking for work in Herndon -- at the park or some other place.

Augusto Hernandez, 36, came to the United States from Mexico in 2000 but left his wife and child there, he said with the aid of a translator. Hernandez said he tries to send them $500 every two weeks, an amount he thinks will shrink now that he is back on the streets, flagging down construction trucks in search of work.

As a chill wind blew across the park, hinting at the harsh weather to come, Hernandez said the center, which was managed by a nonprofit group and offered shelter, was a blessing. But its closure will not stop him from trying to find work.

"We have to work. We have families," he said. "We have to struggle to make things better for the people we love."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company