Voters prove Herndon still divided over illegal immigration

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Tiny Herndon in Fairfax County, with its Victorian homes, McMansion developments and well-groomed town center, holds the distinction of being one of the first places in the country swept into the national debate over immigration policy.

In the summer of 2005, the council, controlled by Democrats, created a job center for day laborers in an effort to move the rising number of illegal immigrants -- and crime -- away from downtown stores and street corners. Angry reaction was swift. Some residents wanted to bar public money from being spent on the facility while others wanted it moved to an industrial site. Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, filed a lawsuit. Representatives of the Arizona-based Minutemen showed up at the local 7-Eleven to protest. Conservative talk radio was enflamed.

The pro-center mayor and two council members were ousted the following May, replaced by a six-person board and mayor that opposed using taxpayer money for the center, which was eventually closed. Subsequently, anti-illegal immigration measures received near-unanimous approval, including efforts to crack down on loitering and alcohol-related crimes in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.

But this past week, Herndon voters sent a mixed message. Two council members who opposed the day-laborer site were unseated, two others held onto their posts and two Hispanic candidates -- seeking to become the town's first Latino representatives -- failed in their bids.

A town in transition

Candidates and political observers say the results show the town's mixed feelings on a variety of issues. Herndon, which still holds annual reenactments of the 1863 Confederate raid on its train station, is in the midst of a substantial transformation, expedited by a planned Metrorail station and mixed-use developments for Route 28. But Tuesday's results also reflect continuing division among residents about the community's growing Hispanic population, which has reached nearly 30 percent, according to Census estimates.

Four candidates supported by Alliance for Herndon's Future, a Democratic-leaning group that worked to remove those who voted against the day-laborer site, won seats on the council: Lisa C. Merkel, Sheila Olem, Jasbinder Singh and Grace H. Wolf. Singh is an immigrant who made the issue a theme in his campaign; Wolf is the daughter of immigrants. All three female candidates campaigned on platforms that focused primarily on land-use planning and creating a friendly climate for small businesses. But a poll conducted by the Herndon Observer of likely voters indicated that the chief election issue was how to handle the illegal immigrant population.

The 7-Eleven on Elden Street still attracts dozens of Spanish-speaking men each weekday seeking jobs, often in construction, at $7 to $8 an hour, and now a police presence as authorities take down license plate numbers of cars that pick up groups of workers. And Town Hall regularly gets complaints about too many people under one roof, too many parked cars and too much noise and trash -- problems that many of those complaining associate with illegal immigrants.

"Immigration is never off the table in Herndon," said Wolf, a small business owner whose parents emigrated from South Korea in the 1970s. "When Arizona happened, I was thinking to myself, 'Thank God this took us off the hot spot,'" referring to a controversial new Arizona law that makes it easier for police to stop and detain suspected illegal immigrants.

Overcrowding at issue

Wolf and other new council members say their wins might not reflect the diversity of the community but rather growing concern over the outgoing council's emphasis placed on immigration-related issues, such as overcrowding and the town's partnership program with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Council member Dennis D. Husch, one of the most ardent opponents of the day-laborer center and author of legislation that aimed to crack down on illegal immigration, decided not to seek reelection. Fellow anti-day laborer council members David A. Kirby and Charlie D. Waddell narrowly lost on Tuesday.

Waddell's loss was especially noticeable, given that he had championed the council's policies of reducing the number of houses with overcrowding complaints and the town's partnership with federal authorities in detaining 225 suspects arrested for other crimes on illegal immigration violations. Waddell calls them "bad guys."

"Overcrowding continues to resonate with folks," Waddell said. "I've had people who point to their cul-de-sacs and said, 'That home once had six, seven people. Now it's a single-family home."

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