A shiny black Mercedes pulls up to the 7-Eleven on Elden Street in Herndon, and immediately it's clear that the driver is not here for a Slurpee. Without exchanging a word, eight guys in T-shirts and jeans sidle up to the car. The driver points to the first two men who reach him, and they wordlessly climb into the Benz.
Depending on your view of U.S. history, world affairs and Herndon politics, the driver, Basir Yousefi, has either helped turn the wheel of the American economy or struck a blow against his community. Yousefi, a mortgage broker who is himself an immigrant from Afghanistan, needs work done around his house -- cleaning, yard stuff -- and he has just done what many people in the Herndon-Reston area do when they need quick, cheap labor: He's paid a visit to the 7-Eleven parking lot at Elden and Alabama Drive, where 90 men, all of them immigrants from Central and South America, wait for a chance to make $7 to $10 an hour cleaning or building.
"I have a small project," Yousefi says. "I don't have time to do this myself. I understand there are people who think it's wrong to hire them -- I'm an American citizen. But face the reality: These are the people who are willing to do the hard work. And I was in their shoes when I came to this country."
You might think that Yousefi -- and the workers inside the 7-Eleven and the security guard hired to keep the laborers behind a blue line painted on the parking lot -- would argue that illegal immigrants should not be hired, that jobs should go to legal immigrants like themselves.
But no, the men who have managed to get papers and good jobs do not criticize these recent arrivals from Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia. "Where are they supposed to go?" asks the guard, who didn't want his name published because store managers are touchy about the labor pool. "They need to work. They just want to be like the rest of us."
But many in Herndon believe the labor pool is a blight upon their town and an affront to legal immigration. Ann Null won a seat on Herndon's Town Council last year by vocally opposing spending tax money to accommodate the men at the 7-Eleven.
Null, an immigrant from Cuba, says, "Herndon is radically different from our neighbors in being so welcoming of illegal immigrants and lacking enforcement against loitering and overcrowding."
The town is considering spending $170,000 on a center where laborers could wait for work and learn English.
Null is appalled. "Entry to the United States is a privilege. At this location, there are bottles full of urine and urine that tests positive for alcohol. Is this a population we want to encourage to live in Herndon? We have to talk about tough love; help them get documented, but do not hire the illegal."
Null says she does her own cleaning, mowing and painting at home. When she does hire help, she asks the boss to send documented workers. "And if there's a price differential, I tell them I will happily pay it," she says. "Sometimes, they don't call me back after that, but I get what I want."
Null says she has been met with leers and impolite comments as she walked through the 7-Eleven lot. "It's uncomfortable," she says. "You get swarmed, surrounded whenever you go there. It's kind of like 'The Birds,' but it's 'The People.' It's sad."
At the labor pool, I saw the men whistle at passing women, but otherwise they kept to themselves. As the hours drifted by, the mood shifted from hopeful to depressed, and some men wandered into nearby gas station and bank lots, sitting on the curbs.
"It's unsightly to have these scruffy guys there, but I don't feel any hostility," says Bob Bruhns, a Herndon resident who moderates town political discussions on a community Web site, Restonweb.com. "There's a lot of anger in Herndon because quality of life is declining. It's the overcrowding, cars on the lawns and, above all, gangs. People associate the gang problem with the labor pool even if they're two different groups."
Years of grumbling in Herndon are morphing into name-calling and shouting. A federal government that avoids the issue and a nation of people who speak with forked tongue -- Get tough on illegals! Get me cheap labor and cheap goods! -- produce such confrontations. Herndon by itself cannot settle this; it can only help its residents, no matter their origin, find a way to live together without too much chest bumping.