In the orderly world of suburbia, the intersection of Alabama Drive and Elden Street in Herndon smacks of chaos.
Every morning, 150 or so men cluster on sidewalks and in parking lots, offering their strong backs and calloused hands for hire.
This picturesque little town near Dulles International Airport is in a quandary over how to manage those men at this site, which has grown unruly and overcrowded. Many who live on nearby streets in small, trim ranch and two-story houses want the day laborers gone. And a proposal to create a designated site for the workers in another neighborhood has caused an uproar among some people who are trying to block the move.
Residents agree that something must be done, for the sake of the town and the day laborers themselves. The informal site in a 7-Eleven parking lot is a source of simmering anger and frustration for many neighbors, and even those who sympathize with the laborers recognize the problems associated with the site.
Bob Rudine goes to a park to pick up empty beer bottles, which he believes are left by day laborers who do not find jobs. Lidia Gonzalez's daughter rarely ventures outside because she says some laborers have whistled at her.
But another neighbor, Sara Gonzalez, says that she never has been harassed and that she feels badly when she see laborers walking home after a fruitless day. And Lucio Escobar frets that many Anglos broadly blame all Latinos for the actions of a few day laborers.
Tomorrow, Herndon's planning commission will hold a public hearing on a proposal to create a designated day-laborer site and make it a misdemeanor to solicit jobs anywhere else in town. The issue has roiled Herndon, and national groups that opposed some immigration policies have threatened to sue the town.
The choices do not appear ideal, and any decision is bound to leave many residents unhappy.
"The current situation is unacceptable," said Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly, who campaigned on a promise to improve the day-laborer situation. "Our choice is between having a regulated site and an unregulated site. Given those options, I'm in favor of a regulated site."
The debate is being played out in miniature among neighbors of the current site and in the residential neighborhood surrounding the proposed site.
The often emotional discourse reflects a small town undergoing a big transition.
Herndon has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any jurisdiction in the region -- 38 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. More than one-fourth are Latino, and the proportion of whites dropped in the 1990s from 78 percent to 58 percent. Many residents have lived in Herndon for decades and remember when it was a sleepy burg amid dairy farms.
The change is particularly visible around the 7-Eleven store. People call it the "states" area, because several streets have such names as Alabama, Florida and Missouri. Most houses are small starter homes. Many Asian immigrants moved into the neighborhood after the Vietnam War. In the past decade, most newcomers have been Latinos.
Rudine, 62, a retired computer technician, has lived on Alabama Drive since 1978. His house, surrounded by a wild profusion of flowers in his yard, is one block from the 7-Eleven. He laments the neighborhood that no longer exists, when he knew everyone on the block and children walked unaccompanied to the convenience store for Slurpees.
"I came out here the other day and it dawned on me: Kids don't come out here anymore," said Rudine, as he walked onto an adjacent school baseball field, past dozens of cases of beer bottles piled around a trash bin. "Twelve years ago, it was packed with kids."
Rudine says he believes that some day laborers drink there if they do not find work. "Who else would be there?" he said.
Herndon Police Chief Toussaint E. Summers Jr. said police have made 21 arrests near the day-laborer site in each of the two previous years, all for such nuisance crimes as public drunkenness and trespassing.
Although the arrests are few and for minor offenses, some residents find the day-labor site intimidating.
"I'm too scared," said Lidia Gonzalez, 48, a Salvadoran immigrant who has lived on Arkansas Avenue for 14 years. "My daughter won't leave the house. They whistle at her. I want them to move it, and I want police to ticket them."
Sara Gonzalez, 19, a real estate student who lives down the street in a house with a shrine to the Virgin Mary on the lawn, said seeing the immigrant laborers reminds her of her parents, who came to the United States from El Salvador.
"I feel bad when I see them coming back after waiting long hours and they don't get anything," she said. "It's true, there are some who drink and some who hang out at the spot. But most have to go out and find jobs."
Lucio Escobar, 47, an electrician who emigrated from El Salvador 30 years ago, said many residents make a rush to judgment against Latinos.
"They see the beer bottles and think everyone is like that," Escobar said. "I go there and talk to the day laborers. I tell them: 'Don't throw any trash or drink beer.' "
In his 19 years on Florida Avenue, Escobar has watched the neighborhood evolve as more Latinos have moved in.
"Change is tough," he said. "But this country has a great Constitution. It's supposed to be justice for all. Some people think it's just justice for them."
On an issue in which race is a persistent undercurrent, many non-Latino opponents of the site resent the insinuation that their objections are racist. They say they see it as a matter of fairness.
David Stanley and his wife raised three sons in the house they bought on Missouri Street 37 years ago. He runs a lawn service business from his home. County inspectors have made repeated visits to check that the equipment in his driveway is covered. It galls Stanley and his son Todd, 37, that his town and neighboring Fairfax County would spend tax dollars on day laborers, an unknown number of whom are in the country illegally.
"They seem to be getting a lot of special treatment," David Stanley said.
"We've got nothing against them," Todd Stanley said. "They're great workers, and they're cheap. But we're paying taxes. They're not."
Stories such as the ones told by neighbors of the 7-Eleven have circulated widely. Near the proposed site, the fear is palpable.
"People are panicking," Jim Upson said. "Five houses in my neighborhood are for sale now. Prices are dropping. No one's buying."
For weeks, town officials, including the mayor and police chief, have made repeated visits to the neighborhood of handsome brick homes to calm jittery residents. So have staffers from Reston Interfaith and Project Hope and Harmony, two nonprofit groups that plan to operate the site and offer services to the immigrants. At one meeting last week in a development clubhouse, residents submitted almost 70 questions in writing.
No. 12: "Why do we have to have a day laborer site?"
No. 14: "Are the town or Hope and Harmony prepared to guarantee that property values will not decrease because of this site?"
No. 43: "How will the project managers ensure that my grandchildren are not exposed to the workers while they are waiting for their school bus in the morning?"
The mayor bristled at the last question.
"Twenty-six percent of our community is Latino," O'Reilly replied. "I don't know how we can keep our children and grandchildren from being exposed to workers."
He reminded the residents that the town attorney has advised that it would be unconstitutional to ban day laborers. The only way to regulate them is to accommodate them, town officials said.
"If I had my druthers, we wouldn't have a day-laborer site, period," O'Reilly said. "But we don't have that choice."
Some seem resigned to what they suspect is a done deal, no matter how much they would wish it away.
"It's a fait accompli," said Mike Bradley, a lawyer who helped organize the meeting. "We've got to make some concessions. Our property values and safety have to be protected. If it means putting up an eight-foot fence, that's what we'll do. If the town can't solve an eyesore at the 7-Eleven, then we're all defeated in terms of property values."
Well aware of the controversy, several laborers at the site one recent morning said they look forward to a place where they would not be subject to cutting remarks from passersby.
"I hear them say they're going to call the INS," said Walther Ratana, 28, a naturalized citizen born in Costa Rica. "I don't understand why sometimes American people say they pay taxes and Hispanics are taking advantage of it. The money we make here every day we spend on rent, taxes, electricity and phones. We don't live free. We don't take food stamps. We're just looking for jobs on the corner."
Activist Juan Pacheco talks with day laborers to try to get them to attend a Herndon Town Council meeting on a proposal to move their gathering site.