Transcript

Herndon Approves Day Labor Center

Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005; 2:15 AM

The Herndon Town Council last night approved the creation of a formal, taxpayer-funded gathering spot for day laborers, saying the chaos in a 7-Eleven parking lot where the workers now gather would only worsen if it did nothing, Washington Post staff writer Lisa Rein reports in Thursday's article "Herndon Approves Day Labor Center" (Post, Aug. 18).

Rein was online Thursday, Aug. 18, at 2:15 p.m. ET to answer your questions.

The transcript follows.

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Lisa Rein:

Hello folks!

I've been recently covering the debate over day laborers, and I have been writing about government and politics in Fairfax County since 2002. The Herndon story has been fascinating to watch. Thanks so much for joining me today.

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Arlington, Va.: Where you surprised to see the council approve the labor sites?

Lisa Rein:

Hi Arlington,

No, I wasn't surprised the council voted as it did; Given the fine-tuning it gave the application from Project Hope and Harmony, it seemed that the town was likely to approve the proposal. The Planning Commission narrowly recommended against approval earlier this month, but that vote was non-binding. Last night, each council member gave a lengthy and passionate explanation of his or her vote.

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Washington, D.C.: Lisa, I wasn't able to attend the Herndon town meetings or see it on cable. What was the mood of those giving speeches? Any yelling? People losing their tempers?

Lisa Rein: Hi D.C.,

Well, I would say that the 179 speakers (who stretched their testimony over two nights!) were all passionate about their views. That's what made it so interesting. Opponents of the site and advocates seemed to split evenly, although I didn't make a count. The hearings were orderly for the most part, although I did observe that the council members bristled at many speakers who came from outside Herndon, saying that their "intrusion" was not welcome.

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Arlington, Va.: Has the Kilgore campaign said anything yet about yesterday's vote?

Lisa Rein: Hi Arlington,

Yes, the Kilgore campaign issued a press release that reiterated the candidate's opposition to publicly funded day laborer sites.

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Arlington, Va.: I saw a brief mention of laborers speaking up for themselves at the hearing -- seems like their voices have really been drowned in this debate. Have you talked to many of these families? Do they fully understand what's going on, and what do they say?

Lisa Rein: Hi Arlington,

Yes, a number of day laborers spoke in their defense, almost all with Spanish interpreters. I'm not sure their voices have been drowned out completely in the debate, as they have many advocates who testified on their behalf. The workers I have spoken to are young men who have left families and children in their home countries to find work here. Several said they are sending money back home.

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Herndon, Va.: Bravo for the Herndon Town Council! They faced down an absurdly overblown reaction to approve a very sensible solution to a very real problem.

Q. Is WMAL facing any FCC investigation or fine for the spurious and racist diatribe it aired on this issue last week?

washingtonpost.com: Here's Lisa's story on that: Hate Calls Swamp Herndon Town Hall ; Radio Host Had Urged Day-Labor Site Protests (The Post, August 6, 2005)

Lisa Rein: Hi, I'm not sure what's happening with WMAL--I haven't heard of any federal intervention. Remember the First Amendment!

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Washington, D.C.: What other Metro area municipalities have labor centers like the one Herndon has approved?

Lisa Rein: Hi Washington and Arlington,

I'll answer these together. There are quite a few other sites where day laborers gather in suburbs around Washington, but only some are supported with money from local governments. Fairfax County has at least three informal gathering spots, including one in Annandale, and the county, which, incidentally, is paying the contribution to Herndon's site, has allocated money for outreach workers at those places. Arlington set up a spot in Shirlington in 2003, also publicly funded. Montgomery recently approved money for a site in Wheaton and has a few others, although I'm not sure where, sorry. Prince William County has one in Woodbridge (also at a 7-Eleven) and there was debate about whether the Board of Supervisors would pay for services there. I believe the decision on that was no.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you think that the immigration agencies will start to crack down on border patrols as more towns have to deal with labor issues?

Lisa Rein: Hi, Fairfax,

I don't have the sense that the day laborer issue by itself will affect border patrols; that's a larger issue of immigration policy and resources that would seem to go beyond local government. But last night, the council members expressed frustration as they said they had appealed to federal authorities for help several years ago but gotten no response.

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Washington, D.C.: There seems to be a conscious effort by the mainstream media to try to portray opponents of the day laborer center in a positive light by justifying their reactions. Yet so much of the outrage (city council meetings, talk radio, blogs) seems rooted in simple racism. Do you think the media goes out of its way to give opponents a fair shake when perhaps it should be diving deeper into the roots of the racial tensions that still exist in suburban Washington.

Lisa Rein: Hi Washington,

That's a compelling question. As a newspaper that takes fairness and balance very seriously, we make it a priority to represent both sides of any issue. Yes, race has been an undercurrent in this debate and yes, this is an issue worth exploring. Opponents of the site have many nuanced reasons for their views.

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Fairfax, Va.: Can you explain what the benefit of the center will be, beyond centralizing a location? Will it ensure that contractors hire people who can work legally? Pay them a reasonable wage?

Lisa Rein: Hi Fairfax,

The mission for Project Hope and Harmony, the nonprofit group that will build and operate the site, is to bring order to the chaos every morning at the 7-Eleven where the workers now congregate. The council, in issuing Project Hope what's called a "conditional use" permit, did write a bunch of conditions. One is that the contractors who hire the workers be given information about federal immigration law that specifically indicates that hiring undocumented workers is illegal. Also, there will be English classes offered to the workers, but not trade classes. The council has indicated that it wants to pass an anti-solicitation law, which would limit people looking for work and looking for workers to making their arrangements at the site. This is so workers don't gather along Elden Street, Herndon's main commercial strip.

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Herndon, Va.: It seems like people who are opponents of the facility are mixing illegal immigration issue and issue of funding a facility. Are we certain that the people congregating around 7-11 are illegal immigrants or are they merely non-English speaking looking for a job because they cannot get a job else where? In addition, these hard working people are doing jobs in which no one else likes to do. Where else can someone go to hire a person for one to two days job?

Lisa Rein: Hi Herndon,

Supporters of the day laborers, and the workers themselves, have made the same arguments. How many of the workers are undocumented is a matter of dispute. One study by Fairfax County put the number at 85 percent, but last night, officials with Project Hope and Harmony disputed that number. Town leaders and Project Hope officials acknowledge that some workers are illegal but we don't know how many.

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Fairfax City: Aren't there laws against aiding employers in the hiring of people who do not have a legal right to work in the U.S.? Is what the City of Herndon doing in violation of any state or federal laws?

Lisa Rein: Hi Fairfax City,

Town officials say that by contracting with Project Hope and Harmony to set up a site for the workers, Herndon is not getting involved with the employers per se, but rather resolving a land-use issue. Before last night's vote, the mayor of Herndon, Michael O'Reilly, said that everyone has constitutional right to stand on a corner and solicit work whether they have documents or not.

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Vienna, Va.: Now that the Herndon Town Council has approved a day laborer site, will the town be able to arrest people for loitering at the 7-11 site?

Lisa Rein: Hi Vienna,

My understanding is that yes, the town can issue citations for loitering at the 7-Eleven once the new site is set up. That's supposed to happen sometime in October, according the Project Hope and Harmony folks.

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Ashburn, Va.: Lisa, The current location at the 7-11 on Alabama Ave. is very much in the center of the Hispanic "area" of Herndon. The proposed location, out near the Loudoun county border, isn't. Is there any concern that the project will not be a success because of the distance required for the laborers to get there, or will there be buses and bikes such that there wouldn't be a problem?

Lisa Rein: Hi Ashburn,

The new site is about a mile and a half from the 7-Eleven. One of the complaints from Herndon residents is that the workers get to the 7-Eleven on foot, and that, the residents say, can be disruptive. There's a Fairfax Connector bus that goes near the new location, and Project Hope and Harmony officials say they will work with Fairfax County to adjust the bus route to make it more convenient, maybe having a stop at the site. Not sure about bikes, but the Project Hope folks say they are keenly aware that transportation is an issue both for the workers and the neighbors.

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Herndon, Va.: Do we really think this new site will prevent them from congregating at 7-11? Why walk 2 miles when they can continue to have the same service at 7-11? It is my understanding that law enforcement cannot do anything as far as loitering as long as the owner doesn't file a complaint. Also, what are ways that I can protect myself against the potential loss in value to my home that this move could cause? The loss in my property value along with the fact that my money is being used to help illegal citizens is my biggest complaint. Why should someone illegal get this benefit and then in turn not pay any taxes once they receive it?

Lisa Rein: Hi Herndon,

Property values have been a major concern for many people who are struggling with this issue. I think that by designating a formal location for the workers to await pickups, the town hopes to concentrate them into one area and stop the loitering, littering and noise at the 7-Eleven. So in a sense, the town seems to be saying that when the public nuisance many people perceive improves, everyone in Herndon will benefit. On the question of taxes, advocates for the workers said at this week's hearings that many day laborers actually do pay federal taxes.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm baffled by the mayor of Herndon's claim, quoted in today's Post story, that illegal aliens have a "constitutional right" to hang out seeking work on a street corner, like everybody else.

To the contrary, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has said that there's nothing in the Constitution or federal law that prevents local law enforcement from enforcing laws against illegal immigration.

Do you know what constitutional provision the mayor had in mind?

Lisa Rein: Hi Arlington,

I'm terribly sorry but I don't know the legal ruling the mayor was referring to.

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Olney, Md.: In the Washington Post articles about day laborer centers, never does the term "illegal alien" appear. Why does the Post substitute terms like "undocumented worker" and "immigrant who may be here illegally", instead of using the term "illegal alien," which is the legal jargon that is widely used in court documents.

Lisa Rein: Hi Olney,

A Maryland viewer! The Post's style is not to use the word alien because it's not precise. If someone is undocumented or in the country illegally, that language is more helpful to the reader to describe that person's status.

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Herndon, Va.: The council's action seems to me to be the "least worst" way to go. I'm not "for" illegal immigrants, but if they're here, and the federal government is taking no action, this at least moves "Herndon's problem" to a better location and provides some control.

Lisa Rein: Hi Herndon,

Your comment does reflect the sentiments expressed last night by several council members. They said they felt they were in a real quandary over an issue that they did not create. They said that their main responsibility is to create a community that Herndon residents are comfortable in.

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Washington, D.C.: I heard one of the council members who opposed the Herndon site speaking on the radio this morning. He said he pleaded with local congressman and senators to deal with the immigration issue so they wouldn't have to deal with this particular vote. Doesn't that seem like he's passing the buck?

Lisa Rein: Hi Washington,

Interesting question. One council member who voted against the site last night, Dennis Husch, said essentially that he did not want to pass the buck (not his words, my paraphrase) and that just because Congress has not helped, that didn't give the town a license to endorse what he called illegal activity.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: I benefit greatly from the CASA day labor center in Silver Spring. So have my neighbors. The men we've had to come to help out with various projects do tasks that we aging folks cannot -- yard work, handyman type things. We pay fairly ($12 an hour) and treat the workers kindly, and they work hard and appreciate a chance to help their families. The fact is, without employment, these same guys wouldn't have options, and I think our community would suffer, as the unemployment rates are low. Question: any correlation between higher levels of gang activity and the hostile work environment for day laborers?

Lisa Rein: Hi Chevy Chase,

Not sure about the gang question. I'm pretty sure that Herndon officials will be using the day laborer site in Montgomery County as a guide as they set theirs up.

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Arlington, Va.: If the logic goes, since the federal government isn't doing anything about these "undocumented workers," so we need a shelter to deal with their presence -- did anyone on the council suggest inviting the Federal government to do something about it?

Lisa Rein: Hi Arlington,

The council members said last night that they have tried to alert federal authorities to the large groups of day laborers in Herndon, but received no response.

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Herndon, Va.: Do you have any ideas of when are they planning on starting to build the site? What happens if a suit is filed against the town?

Lisa Rein: Hi Herndon,

The Project Hope and Harmony folks say they hope be to be up and running within 90 days.

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Lisa Rein: Hello all,

I've got to get going because I have a story to write for tomorrow! Thank you so much for writing. Several people have asked how to get in touch with Project Hope and Harmony. The group is an umbrella group of churches and charitable organizations that's affiliated with Reston Interfaith. Reston Interfaith is on the web. Otherwise, Joel Mills, who serves on the executive board of Project Hope and Harmoney, has suggested that people contact him via email, at Democracy71@yahoo.com

Thanks again for your interest.

Oh, and my email address is Reinl@washpost.com. I'd love to hear from you. Cheers.

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washingtonpost.com:

Here's the Reston Interfaith Web site. Thanks again for all the great questions and stay tuned for continuing coverage.

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