Herndon Could Tighten Screws On Day Laborers

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."

The measures being considered may have problems. Alcohol sales are regulated by the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, and pay phones are installed by private companies. The town attorney has advised officials not to adopt a new anti-solicitation ordinance, warning that it might not hold up in court without action by the Virginia General Assembly.

Then there is the question of whether the measures would have the intended effect.

"Cities that have tried to use criminal enforcement measures to rid their town of day laborers have never succeeded," Newman said. "First, the methods they've used have run afoul of the constitution. Second, as a practical matter, they haven't worked."

On a recent morning, about 50 men lingered on the sidewalks and in the parking lots in Herndon's busy commercial corridor along Elden Street, hoping to be picked up by a contractor in need of a day's labor. Their presence there has persisted despite close surveillance by police and a drop-off in the number of construction jobs in recent months.

Employers "know we are here," said Ruben Perez, 38, an immigrant from Guatemala in a paint-spattered red T-shirt who was standing on the sidewalk outside a Shell gas station. "If we go some other place, maybe they don't find us."

Longtime residents and anti-illegal-immigrant activists say it is worth the effort to discourage illegal immigration. George Taplin, who founded a Virginia chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to protest the day laborer job center, praised the Town Council for continuing to devise ways to expel the workers.

In large part, the proposals require the town to enforce laws that are on the books, he said. If the town does so, perhaps the workers will move on to some other community.

"If people choose to stand on a corner and offer their services for work, and people from outside of Herndon come and hire them, there isn't a lot we can do in terms of that part of the mix," he said. "But what we can do is make it difficult, unfeasible, for people to stand around on sidewalks in Herndon."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company