Herndon Could Tighten Screws On Day Laborers

Workers gathered on Alabama Drive, hoping to get offers from contractors, after Herndon closed its center for day laborers last year.
Workers gathered on Alabama Drive, hoping to get offers from contractors, after Herndon closed its center for day laborers last year. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

Herndon officials are considering regulations to make the community inhospitable to day laborers, who have returned to sidewalks and street corners since the town shuttered a controversial job center for the mostly Hispanic workers last year.

Town officials want to step up police activity and zoning enforcement where the workers gather, ban carryout alcoholic beverage sales downtown and remove the pay phones that the workers use to call their home countries. They want to institute a permitting process for homeowners to rent out rooms, in hopes of reducing the number of workers living in crowded conditions. They also want to confiscate bicycles -- a common mode of transport for the workers -- that are parked illegally in public places.

The measures are designed to make life difficult for day laborers. The workers have a constitutional right to solicit jobs in public, but their presence has infuriated town leaders, who say they are a nuisance.

"I'm getting a lot of pressure from my constituents to do something about those 30 guys standing on the street all the time," said Town Council member Dennis D. Husch, who proposed the new rules. "I got an e-mail from a lady that lives on the west end of Alabama Drive talking about how scared she was, how afraid she was to go out at night or to go out during the daytime because of the men just hanging out. . . . People shouldn't have to live like that."

Herndon burst into the national debate on illegal immigration in 2005, when the Town Council voted to spend about $400,000 in taxpayer money to build a job center for laborers seeking a day's work. The goal, council members said at the time, was to keep the laborers off the streets. But there was a national outcry over the center because many of those laborers were in the country illegally. The mayor and several council members who supported the center were ousted in the next election. The new council has since closed the center.

To those who have been critical of the town's treatment of the day laborers, the new proposals are a troubling escalation.

"We're going to monitor events, and we're frankly concerned that the day laborers' civil rights will be violated," said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group.

It has been almost a year since the Town Council shut down the Herndon Official Workers Center, which had helped employers connect with workers in search of short-term jobs. Many residents had praised the nonprofit center for taking the laborers, most of them Hispanic, off street corners and providing them with English classes and other assistance. But others were outraged because most of the workers were thought to be illegal immigrants.

After a series of emotional town meetings, the Town Council voted overwhelmingly to shutter the taxpayer-subsidized center last September.

With the job center closed, the workers tried to organize themselves, gathering on a dirt path near a park. Within a few months, the system fell apart, and the workers were back in the center of town, lining the sidewalks and clustering under trees around the corner of Elden Street and Alabama Drive.

Ellen Kaminsky, who was a member of the board of directors of Project Hope and Harmony, the group that ran the job center, said town leaders discarded a solution that had been successful and now are trying to pursue overly harsh measures.

"Herndon had already solved this problem," she said. "I think we're going backwards."

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