Developer proceeds with day-labor center in Centreville despite wide opposition

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Northern Virginia developer is proceeding carefully with a controversial plan to create a day-laborer site behind his Centreville shopping center. But the proposal faces a long road ahead, its supporters say, after a heated meeting Tuesday night that included hundreds of residents and shopkeepers who oppose the idea.

Albert J. Dwoskin, owner of the McLean-based firm A.J. Dwoskin and Associates, needs to file applications for a building permit and minor site plan, said Brian Worthy, a Fairfax County spokesman. The proposal does not require approval by the county's Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors and mirrors the requirements imposed on a similarly contentious plan for a town-funded day-laborer center in 2006 in Herndon. The site at Centreville Square Shopping Center would be funded by Dwoskin and be run as a nonprofit organization by the Centreville Immigration Forum, a group of churches.

"We'll go ahead and continue to look at it because it is an option and I think it is a reasonable solution," Dwoskin said after the meeting.

Dwoskin and Supervisor Michael R. Frey said they would conduct more research on the plan in the wake of the sometimes-boisterous town hall-style meeting in the cafeteria of Centreville's Centre Ridge Elementary School. About 300 people attended the two-hour meeting, along with at least four television crews and dozens of activists on both sides of the immigration debate.

Nonprofit and church groups have said a site for day laborers at the shopping center could address concerns from store owners and residents who say Hispanic immigrants who look for work there and at the nearby public library are intimidating and a nuisance. At least some of the men, church groups and Frey said, are undocumented immigrants.

At several points Tuesday, many in the crowd snickered, sneered and yelled at one another and at Frey, who moderated the forum.

One man yelled "You lie!" at Frey when he began speaking about the county's partnership with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail programs. At another point, a shouting match erupted between a speaker and Frey, a moderate Republican who has represented the Sully area since the district was created in 1991.

"I'm not going to claim this is an end-all," Frey said. "Do people feel like moving the workers to a location that's less visible and less prominent, where it could be controlled? Does it make it better?"

The question was met with a chorus of boos.

Most of those who spoke said they opposed a day-laborer center, questioning whether the site would invite more crime and traffic. "They have become a problem for our stores after hours, and it's gotten bad," said Marsha Goodman, 55, of Centreville, who added that she works at the shopping center's Giant. "I don't see how bringing them closer to the stores would make it better."

It appeared that few, if any, of the laborers who stand near Lee Highway and Centreville Road attended the meeting. Some of the church volunteers who organized themselves three years ago into the Centreville Immigration Forum, a group of about 40 people who work with the community's Hispanic population, stressed that the work site could move the immigrants to a safer, less-trafficked location.

"We have an unorganized day-laboring center right now, spread out over many different corners of Centreville," said Alice H. Foltz of the Centreville Immigration Forum. "What we're talking about is an organized day-laboring center. It would respond to concerns about crime, about safety, about ensuring the workers pay taxes."

When Foltz mentioned taxes, many sighed loudly or yelled.

A handful spoke in support of the work center, arguing that it could help many immigrants who are sometimes exploited by employers.

"Some are legal. They pay rent here. They shop here. They do have families. They do need jobs. The center is just facilitating that," Hilda Rexach, 54, of Springfield, said. "They are not going away. They are a part of your community."

Foltz said that those who participate at the center would get membership cards and that employers would be required to identify themselves and register with the nonprofit during a six-hour stretch, from 6 a.m. to noon. Immigration status would not be checked, she said.

Since Tuesday, Dwoskin said he had received a largely positive reaction to his proposal, along with two "threatening" phone calls.

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