As the bitter debate over the creation of a Herndon day-laborer center moved to Fairfax County Circuit Court last week, workers in Gaithersburg were renovating a former arcade on North Frederick Avenue, near the Route 355 overpass.
On a weed-infested spot in front of the building, David Rocha, pastor of Camino de Vida United Methodist Church, sees picnic tables. He also hopes to have a Latino artist paint a mural on an exterior wall.
"This will be our palace," he said.
Starting this fall, Gaithersburg and Wheaton will be the sites of day laborer centers to help accommodate Montgomery County's burgeoning population of such workers, many of them illegal immigrants from Central and South America. Another operates in Silver Spring. (A temporary facility in Takoma Park is to move to Prince George's County in six months.)
The path Gaithersburg took to its day-laborer center started much like Herndon's. Some residents and merchants complained about men who used parking lots in the mornings as informal gathering spots to find work. Civic and religious leaders stepped in to develop alternatives.
But after that, the paths diverged. In Herndon, there were angry public meetings, accusations of racism and, now, a lawsuit: Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group, is trying to block the plan for a taxpayer-funded center, which the Town Council approved Aug. 17.
Gaithersburg's project, funded by Montgomery, was not without opposition. But compared with Herndon's, it breezed through the process. Elected officials and community leaders offer a range of reasons why, from politics to demographics to the influence of outside forces.
There has been a significant influx of immigrants in both towns. But the demographic changes have been felt more acutely in Herndon, a former farming community of four square miles. Thirty-eight percent of its 22,000 residents are foreign-born. Gaithersburg's population of 58,000 is 20 percent Latino.
"We have a very participatory town, and the fact that it's relatively small, people know and understand that they can and do make a difference in how we govern," Herndon Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly said. "Government bodies like the Montgomery County Council and Fairfax are bigger, and it's a lot more difficult to have an impact."
Others are more blunt. "I think it just underlines the fact here in Montgomery County . . . we do not encourage the hatemongering and xenophobia displayed in Virginia," State Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery).
Still, when Montgomery decided to open its Silver Spring site 10 years ago, the protests were akin to Herndon's in size and anger. As the county has grown more diverse -- about 40 percent of its 930,000 residents are foreign-born -- residents have become more accustomed to immigrant-friendly policies.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has allowed immigrants to use documents issued by foreign governments as proof of identity. He also maintains an Office of Community Outreach, organized by regions of the world. He traveled to El Salvador last month to meet with business and political leaders, including the country's president.
A likely candidate for Maryland governor next year, Duncan said he is simply providing basic services, something he said the federal government has not adequately done. "It's not a question of local government coddling immigrants," he said. "We've got to keep a safe community."
Outside forces also made a difference. Several national anti-immigrant groups and a radio talk-show host in California weighed in. Herndon officials unplugged the Town Hall phone lines one morning last month after they were inundated by what were described as hate calls from listeners of a talk show on WMAL.
Gaithersburg's labor center had its genesis two years ago when Rocha and a minister from a large, established congregation decided to collaborate.
Louis Piel, senior pastor of Grace United Methodist, had complained to Montgomery police about the 50 or so people who gathered in his parking lot each morning to wait for jobs, some of them who drank, urinated in public and slept on bushes. Police posted signs threatening them with arrest if they did not leave.
Piel said he immediately felt remorse. "I'm a Christian pastor, and we're filing a complaint," he said. "There's got to be an answer. What's a church going to do, put a 'No Trespassing' sign up? You can't do that sort of thing."
Rocha, who comes from an affluent Colombian family and had been a day laborer in the United States after fleeing his homeland's civil war, had been handing out ham-and-cheese sandwiches to the Gaithersburg workers every other morning. He was also unhappy that the police had been called.
"This is not justice. This is not healthy," he said.
Rocha and Piel wanted to work together but realized they needed help. They contacted city and county officials, other churches, even Montgomery College to form a task force.
Officers from Montgomery's 6th District joined the committee, which was chaired by Piel. "We needed a long-term fix," said Lt. Marcus Jones, a deputy commander. "We were going to continuously run into this sort of problem."
About a dozen people began gathering regularly, sometimes once a week, first at Grace United and then at City Hall. Some sessions attracted as many as 45 people. They spent last winter searching for properties before finding the North Frederick Avenue site, just a block from Grace United's parking lot.
The plan went through with relative ease. In its 2006 budget, passed this spring, the Montgomery County Council approved $29,575 to lease the building and $124,780 for operating costs. The county will continue to pay the lease for the next four years.
Along with monitoring the behavior of both laborers and employers, staff workers at the center will offer English and computer instruction. Laborers won't be asked their immigration status. The facility will most likely be run by Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that also operates the county's other day-laborer centers.
In the meantime, the parking lot remains a draw for many immigrants who have moved to Gaithersburg and other communities in the northern part of the county, where the building boom has created the need for workers.
About 7 a.m. on a recent day, Rocha stood in the lot, looking relaxed in black pants, a black T-shirt and sandals. A gold chain with a cross, dangling from his neck, glistened in the hot sun.
Rocha knew all the workers' names and native countries. He walked around and checked on each one, offering a "God bless you" and a sandwich from a plastic bag. At times, they crowded around him to chat, their eyes darting away when a car pulled up. Sometimes, the police arrest men for disorderly conduct if they see them drinking. Rocha usually gets involved on their behalf.
"I saved you a sandwich," he told a man who walked up to him wearing overalls with paint stains.
"How much did they pay you?" Rocha asked in Spanish.
"Twelve dollars," the man responded.
"For the job you do, it's cheap," Rocha said.
"It's not that you want to come here," said Gerardo Pacheco, who came here from Mexico. "It's that you have to. I have to work."