Proposal for day-laborer site brings a national debate to Centreville

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

At first, a Northern Virginia developer's plan to build a gathering place for immigrant day laborers seemed like a simple solution for a local problem. But as the national immigration debate continues to ramp up, the idea of erecting a double-wide work center in Centreville -- privately funded and staffed by church volunteers -- is facing increased scrutiny from those on both sides of the debate.

Albert J. Dwoskin, once described as the region's "shopping center king" and a longtime Democratic Party donor, last month proposed setting up a trailer behind his Centreville Square Shopping Center as a de facto work center for about 50 Guatemalan day laborers who for years have sought construction and landscaping jobs near the stores and the adjacent Centreville Public Library. Fairfax County Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) has supported the plan, and a group of churches, calling itself the Centreville Immigration Forum, has offered to staff the facility.

But a town-hall-style meeting Tuesday to discuss the proposal is expected to bring out hundreds of shopping center tenants and nearby residents who oppose a day-laborer site because they worry that it could lure more immigrants seeking work. Dwoskin acknowledged the potential for a firestorm.

"The less press this gets, the better," Dwoskin, 67, said last week.

Frey, a moderate Republican with a low-key demeanor, said he, too, feared that the meeting could devolve into a larger discussion of federal immigration policy and threaten the community's carefully hatched plans.

"People have wanted me to grandstand and become some kind of a demagogue on this issue," Frey said. "This is a Centreville problem, not a federal problem. Not to say I wish this hadn't bubbled up, say, three months before Arizona," referring to a new Arizona law that makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally.

Debate about Spanish-speaking day laborers gathering to seek work has been common in the Washington region, from Herndon, Annandale, Culmore and Falls Church in Northern Virginia to Wheaton, Silver Spring and Gaithersburg in Maryland.

In Centreville, a Fairfax County community of about 50,000 that is both prosperous and quickly diversifying, the controversy focuses on the four dozen or so Hispanic men, some of whom are undocumented immigrants, who often stand near Lee Highway and Centreville Road. For five years, Dwoskin has fielded complaints from many of his 120 shopkeepers, who say their customers are being scared away.

"I personally don't like to see them hanging around there. I have families with kids that come in, and it can be a problem," said Rayman Hamid, a Guyana native and former winner of the Centreville Businessman of the Year award who owns a Baskin-Robbins franchise a few blocks from where many of the laborers gather. "But I feel sorry for them, too. They're human beings, man. I don't know what to do."

A year ago, Dwoskin hired a full-time security guard to keep the men off his property, so they took refuge near the library. The Centreville Immigration Forum, the church group that organized three years ago to work with the Hispanic community, has offered its services, holding public forums about immigration and the difficulties of day laboring. Many of the men have told church officials that they have been cheated by employers, said Alice H. Foltz, a parishioner at Wellspring United Church of Christ. She is the unofficial "convener" of about 40 churchgoers who have agreed to staff the trailer as a day-laboring work center.

"It's an issue of exploitation," said Holtz, a history teacher at Northern Virginia Community College's Loudoun County campus. "But we're not trying to solve immigration here. We're trying to help these men."

No taxpayer funds would be used, Frey said, and Dwoskin would pay for the trailer and its utilities. Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, a community educator in the Falls Church office of the Legal Aid Justice Center, called it a "local solution to a local problem," adding that it has the support of the day laborers who live in a stretch of townhouses near the library.

David Garcia, 35, who moved from Guatemala with his wife about four years ago, said a work center could give him and other immigrants a haven and a steady income. "Sometimes they pick us up and don't pay. So a trailer would help," Garcia said.

But many shopping center tenants and customers said they fear that a hiring center would attract more immigrants seeking work, overwhelming already congested roads and spurring a spike in vandalism, loitering and petty crime.

"It's a terrible idea. They're going to come from all over, and we're going to get a reputation for not being a safe place," said Gary Malm, who owns Centreville Tire and Auto near the trailer's proposed site. "I wouldn't want my daughter or son or my wife dropping off a car at night around here if they were hanging around."

Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), whose district includes Centreville, sent an e-mail to 9,000 supporters urging them to attend Tuesday's meeting -- scheduled for 7 p.m. at Centre Ridge Elementary School -- and oppose the work center plan. "Centreville is turning a blind eye to the concerns of its residents," said Hugo, who co-sponsored a bill this year that will allow Virginia localities to prosecute those who sell "goods or services" on roadways.

Church forum members say they fear that Centreville could experience the turmoil that occurred in Herndon in 2006 over a plan for a town-sponsored day-laborer center. But Dwoskin and Frey hope the work center idea calms tensions. "We'll see what happens Tuesday," Frey said.

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