A proposal to designate a tax-supported site where day laborers could gather to seek jobs in an orderly manner drew hundreds of angry residents to a hearing in Herndon last night, protesting that the plan would attract more undocumented immigrants to the area.
When the hearing was suspended about 1 a.m. today, about 30 or 40 of the 109 people who had signed up to speak had addressed the Planning Commission. They voiced strong opinions on both sides of the issue.
"All of you have very nice houses," said Neddy Vargas, 25, in Spanish. The "majority of the people who built these houses have been those people you are calling illegal," said Vargas, who identified himself as a day laborer.
Kathleen Paul, whose house abuts the proposed site, said five of the 30 houses on her street are for sale, but prospective buyers are not being brought to see them. "You are putting our families and our property values in jeopardy," she said.
Officials said they will resume the session tomorrow evening.
Earlier, several day laborers, whom activists had encouraged to attend to put a human face on the emotional issue, walked into the town's municipal center past demonstrators waving placards. As they have done previously, opponents of the proposed site wore white paper stars bearing a red slash through the words "Day Labor sites."
"It's an illegal alien welcoming center," said James McDonald, a lawyer from Springfield who came to Herndon last night to protest the plan. He said the husband of a client was fatally shot by a man in the country illegally. "This site says it's okay to be illegal," he said.
At the meeting, the town's staff recommended that the proposed site, off Herndon Parkway, operate seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. with a 150--person limit. Trespassing on private property while going to or from the site would be prohibited under the staff recommendation.
Even before the hearing, people on each side of the issue had a shouting battle. As one side chanted "We want justice now" and "We are not criminals," the other side shouted: "Enforce our laws."
This was the second time in three weeks that the Planning Commission has heard public comments on the issue, which has become a proxy for the national debate on immigration policy. Groups dedicated to tougher border controls already have said they will sue if the town establishes the site.
Proponents of the plan say creating a designated day-laborer site is the only way to legally ban an informal site that has sprung up around a 7-Eleven parking lot on Elden Street and draws up to 150 Latino men every morning. A more decorous, managed site would be better for both the town and the laborers, they say.
If approved by the Town Council, a new location would be created in a parking lot abutting a residential area on the Loudoun County border. The council has said it would pass an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to solicit jobs elsewhere.
The debate on the proposal continues to be rancorous and emotional. People began lining up 21/2 hours ahead of time to be sure they could sign up to speak.
Many opponents waved placards reading "Illegal aliens displace U.S. workers," "Stop rewarding illegals" and "Enforce immigration laws."
Beside them were several dozen day laborers who had been bused to the hearing by Reston Interfaith, a nonprofit group that would help run the site. They carried signs saying "No human being is illegal," "Open your hearts to the poor and the needy" and "9/11 terrorists were all here legally."
"They think we're bad people, that we cause problems," said Hector Sandoval, 25, who has been a day laborer since arriving from El Salvador eight months ago. "It's not true. We just want to work so we can survive."
The $280,000 annual cost for the site would be paid with both tax dollars and private donations. Project Hope and Harmony, an umbrella group which would operate the site, has requested about $175,000 in public money.
Many residents have said they worry that their property values would decrease if hundreds of day laborers were hanging around and that their safety would be jeopardized by large numbers of strangers walking to the site through their neighborhoods.
Complaints at the current site range from public drunkenness to harassment of passersby.
Several residential groups formed to oppose the project have acknowledged that they have little chance of blocking it. But they hope to persuade the council to enact several ground rules.
Most prominent among them would be the requirement that its use be limited to day laborers with documents to prove they are in the country legally. Supporters of the plan say that responsibility falls on the contractors' shoulders and that requiring it at the day laborer site would effectively doom it.
A council hearing, and a tentative vote, is scheduled for Aug. 16.