Day-Labor Issue Has Cooled, but Only to Simmer

Bill Threlkeld, director of the nonprofit group that ran Herndon's day-laborer center, talks with laborers on his way to work. Some residents say closing the center has made the problem worse.
Bill Threlkeld, director of the nonprofit group that ran Herndon's day-laborer center, talks with laborers on his way to work. Some residents say closing the center has made the problem worse. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

Ky Truong looked out the window of the Herndon Shell station he manages at what he calls "a lot of problems": clusters of immigrant day laborers, who he says have been trampling his flower beds and bothering customers since September, when the town shuttered its controversial day-laborer hiring center. Truong wants it reopened.

But on the eve of Tuesday's municipal elections, the chance of that happening looks close to nil. Asked at a recent political forum if they would consider reopening the site if Fairfax County provided funding, 12 of 13 candidates for Town Council said no. The other said "absolutely not."

Two years ago, Herndon's taxpayer-subsidized day-laborer center was a flash point in a national debate over immigration, and most of the current council and mayor were elected on a wave of voter opposition to the site. Now candidates are talking as much about downtown revitalization and neighborhood upkeep as about day laborers.

But day labor remains a divisive force that could influence the election. Council members who opposed the center boast of fulfilled promises and have raised doubts about challengers' pledges not to reopen it. Challengers talk of "reuniting" the town. Letters to local newspapers and online postings are consumed with the topic. If anything, some observers say, the issue has receded only because three years of debate has drawn deep, indelible battle lines.

"Everybody's got their position," said Bob Rudine, an activist who pushed to have the center closed. "And no amount of discussion will change that."

Day laborers in search of work have resumed congregating at the intersection of Alabama Drive and Elden Street. But even that fact fuels disagreement in Herndon, a town of 23,000, about 40 percent of whom are immigrants.

More than 100 workers sought jobs each day at the defunct center, a place critics said abetted illegal immigration because operators did not verify whether laborers were legal residents. Local and national surveys have found that most day laborers lack work documents.

Anti-illegal immigration activists say they count about 15 to 30 day laborers each day on the streets of central Herndon -- about as many there, they say, as when the job center was open. They say that shows the center's closure has helped drive away day laborers.

"The larger issue before was listening and having elected officials that were in touch with the voters . . . and day labor was indicative of that," said Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis, who unseated his predecessor in 2006. "Somebody said to me the other day, 'You've got my vote because you closed the center.' "

Others say the workers are fewer but still abundant. Bill Threlkeld, director of the nonprofit group that ran the hiring center, said weekly counts in the first three months of the year found between 53 and 75 workers on weekdays. Truong and Alex Canary, manager of Herndon Auto Care, next door to the Shell, said the number and nuisance of day laborers ballooned after the center closed. Critics of the council say that whatever the figure, market forces are most responsible.

"The main reason there are less is just because the job opportunities are less," said council candidate Richard F. Downer, who served on the council from 1971 to 1974 and 1990 to 2000.

When the council closed the center, it determined, based on a recent court ruling on the town's anti-solicitation ordinance, that laborers had a right to solicit jobs on public property. The center's regulars chose a park-side path two blocks from Alabama and Elden for an informal site and called themselves the United Day Laborers of Herndon. Their unity soon collapsed because of lack of leadership and discontent with the site, which is farther from traffic. Many drifted back to the intersection.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company