As Herndon prepares to vote Tuesday on whether to designate an official gathering spot for day laborers, what began as a neighborhood quandary is evoking passions far beyond the town's borders.
Mark Williams, a guest host on WMAL-AM, exhorted his audience last week to line up at Tuesday's Town Council meeting, "whether you're from Herndon or Timbuktu," to protest plans to use public money to create a new gathering site for the job seekers, many of them undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Council members "have absolutely no intention of following the law," Williams boomed on "The Michael Graham Show" on Monday, broadcasting 3,000 miles away from WFBK in Sacramento. "The issue you're trying to solve," he told listeners, "is the fact that the United States has borders, and its citizens demand that they be enforced."
That was not the kind of attention Herndon leaders and residents anticipated when they began debating how to use local zoning and nuisance laws to deal with growing anger at the large groups of often noisy and disruptive men who congregate in parking lots and on sidewalks seeking work every morning.
But as the town of 22,000 near Dulles International Airport decides whether to use public funds to set up an official site, Herndon has become the focal point in a larger national debate over U.S. immigration policy.
The 150 men who gather daily at a 7-Eleven are featured on the Web sites of national groups fighting illegal immigration, including a white supremacist site offering to help organize protests before the vote.
Members of Congress from Colorado and Iowa who advocate stricter border controls have sent aides to testify before the local Planning Commission. Another WMAL host, Chris Core, has devoted 11 shows to the issue since July. Republican Jerry W. Kilgore's campaign for Virginia governor hit the front page last week when he pledged to oppose all publicly funded worker halls such as the one proposed in Herndon.
And Lou Dobbs, the CNN anchor who often denounces undocumented workers on his nightly show, last week featured a state delegate from Prince William County weighing in on an informal day-laborer site in Woodbridge.
"My aide calls out to me, 'Hey boss, Lou Dobbs wants to talk to you about illegal aliens,' " Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R) said, recalling with wonder the interest from national television. "This day-laborer thing is symptomatic of a larger problem: Our borders are not secure."
Day laborers are causing tension in communities across the country, the most visible sign of the influx of immigrants pouring across U.S. borders, encouraged by what many perceive as a neglectful federal policy. In Herndon, which has the Washington region's highest concentration of foreign-born residents, pressure from frustrated homeowners catapulted tensions with workers into the news. Media reports then caught the eye of lawmakers and public policymakers.
Local opponents of a day-laborer site also found an ally in a Town Council member who framed her campaign around the issue and helped focus attention on Herndon by appealing to national groups that fight illegal immigration. The current furor stands in contrast to the relative calm in Montgomery and Arlington counties, where similar publicly funded sites have operated for several years.
National immigration rights groups have stayed on the sidelines, arguing that Herndon's issue is local.
"We think the national groups have to let the local government deal with the situation," said Michele Waslin, an executive of the National Council of La Raza, an organization for the rights and welfare of Hispanics.
Local advocates for the day laborers, including the nonprofit umbrella group that wants to build and operate the Herndon site, cast the debate as a human rights issue, saying the workers are laying bricks, sweeping floors and pouring blacktop so people like their critics can buy homes in such suburbs as Herndon.
Supporters also point out that some day laborers might be here illegally, but many have working papers.
"We're not trying to deny that illegal immigration is a problem in our nation," said Joel Mills, a Herndon resident who serves on the executive board of Project Hope and Harmony, which would operate the worker site. "But we are not the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency." The national groups opposing the site, he said, "could care less what happens in Herndon."
Not so, said Bob Shoemaker, a Vienna homeowner. "Where the rubber hits the road is at the local level," said Shoemaker, who works with Judicial Watch, a self-styled "anti-corruption" group threatening to sue Herndon if it approves taxpayer funding for the day laborers. "You have a classic case of illegal people changing in a very serious way a small country town. It's what the federal government has been ignoring."
The debate is "truly the culmination of everything that's been going on after 9/11," said Jose Vanegas, a Colombian immigrant who has worked with the day laborers. "The anti-immigrant sentiment has just been ratcheted up."
Herndon Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly supports the proposed hiring hall near the Loudoun County border -- and the $170,000 from Fairfax County that would help fund it.
"If all everybody wants to talk about is national immigration policy, then they're in the wrong forum," O'Reilly said. "The issue our council is trying to address is too many people on a street corner looking for work."
Speakers at a Planning Commission hearing last month were told they could not testify about the day-laborer site if they brought up immigration policy.
"It's unfortunate that a fellow from Sacramento is so concerned about our community," said O'Reilly, referring to Williams's show.
Williams also appeared on the Fox cable channel's morning news show Wednesday to talk about Herndon. He has never been there, but last week he urged listeners opposed to day laborers to "melt the switchboard" at the town clerk's office. The phone system was overwhelmed with calls, and the town manager unplugged the phone lines for four days.
"For me to walk into Herndon, that was a piece of cake," said Williams, who frequently takes on the issue of illegal immigration in his home state.
Some say the influence of Town Council member Ann V. Null helped catapult Herndon to the national stage.
Null has publicly opposed the day laborers and was censured last year by the council for negative comments about immigrants, including one characterizing them as "cooks, maids, janitors and gardeners."
Null said she called the Federation for American Immigration Reform in 2003, when the Town Council started talking about a site for day laborers.
The group, which opposes illegal immigration, sent the council a letter outlining its potential liability in publicly funding a facility that would serve undocumented workers.
Since then, Null has been a guest on WMAL several times.
"The citizens' sentiment is there," she said. "It needed an avenue."
Core, the WMAL host, agreed, calling the town a "beachhead," however unwitting, on which opponents of illegal immigration can focus their frustration.
"Herndon is caught in a wave, whether they wanted to be or not," he said. "A pressure valve has been released."
Core said he plans to broadcast his 6 to 9 p.m. show Tuesday from Herndon.