Hundreds of emotional and angry residents flooded Herndon's municipal center last night over what is growing into a divisive and volatile issue for the region: using tax dollars to establish official day laborer sites.
More than 250 people showed up for a planning commission hearing on the matter, filling the main chambers and spilling into an overflow room where the proceedings could be watched on a television. At one point, more than 50 people crowded the hallways, trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening inside the auditorium.
The planning commission took no action and scheduled another hearing for Aug. 1.
Several people marched outside, waving placards that read, "No Day Laborer Site" and "No $$ for Hiring Hall." Others spoke heatedly against establishing an official day laborer site, saying it would draw more illegal immigrants to the area.
But proponents of the plan accused the protesters of racism and contended that the town needs to reach out to and work with the more than 100 immigrants who gather informally outside a 7-Eleven in downtown Herndon every day.
Dubbed Project Hope and Harmony, the proposal was brought forth by a broad coalition of faith-based groups, nonprofit organizations and social workers. It calls for creating a site in a residential area near the Loudoun County border. Three social workers would manage the day laborers and offer such services as English classes. Fairfax County has offered to use public money to pay the costs of running the site.
Sarah Ince, a director of the nonprofit group Reston Interfaith, a principal partner of Hope and Harmony, said the project requested about $170,000 from Fairfax. Other funds and supplies would be provided by nonprofit groups, churches and the All Dulles Area Muslim Society center, a nearby mosque.
"The day laborers have been here for more than 10 years, and that's a natural fact of the economy here. They built our residential and commercial community," said Kerrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith. "What we are trying to bring is some control to the site, to address many of the concerns that Herndon residents have about the site."
But David Kirby, a Herndon resident, said he didn't want public money to be spent on a site that draws some illegal immigrants.
"At the 7-Eleven, it's an eyesore," he said. "[The workers] are drinking, they are urinating in public, they [are] cat-calling to the women. Not too many people go to that 7-Eleven anymore . . . and now they want to put that in a residential part of town."
Many of the proposal's opponents pinned on their shirts white paper stars proclaiming, "No day laborer site." They were made by Kathy Brooke, 45, of Sterling, who said she gave out 100 before she ran out.
Several people said in public comments they worried that the day workers would lower property values and would bring gang violence and diseases. Others accused those protesters of being racist.
About eight day workers attended the hearing. One of them, Jose Luis Arce, 46, an immigrant from Peru who lives in Herndon, signed up to speak but left before his turn. He said in an interview that the workers face many hardships and often are exploited by their employers.
Members of the crowd appeared almost evenly split between proponents and opponents of the plan, a broader reflection of the town's divide. During the last municipal elections, half of the voters cast ballots for Mayor Michael O'Reilly, who supported establishing a new day laborer site. But an almost equal number voted for his two opponents, both of whom said they opposed such an idea.
More than a few residents decried what they saw as the fraying of their once close-knit community. Before the technology boom of the 1990s transformed the town, Herndon was a farming hamlet. But during that decade, its Latino population alone grew 264 percent; the proportion of white residents dropped from 78 percent to 58 percent.
"I have to say I'm ashamed to see what's happening here," said Abby Reyes, 31, of Herndon, a supporter of Project Hope and Harmony. "It's shocking to see what xenophobia and insecurity can bring."