Herndon Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly ticked off a list of projects going on in his town that he said not many outsiders know about: a 58-acre park, an 18-hole golf course, a $4.5 million expansion of a recreation center and a new arts center.
"But we have 25 people show up to a meeting and call themselves Minutemen," he said, "and we get national attention."
O'Reilly's remarks, which drew appreciative laughter, came yesterday at the first regional conference about immigrant day laborers.
About 100 people attended the nearly six-hour meeting at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments headquarters in Washington. Participants included elected officials from across the region, community leaders, representatives of social service agencies and at least one former day laborer who is now a millionaire businessman in Virginia.
"This is just the first of a number of dialogues we are going to have," said Walter Tejada, a member of the Arlington County Board, founding chairman of the Shirlington Employment and Education Center and chairman of COG's Human Services Policy Committee.
There are 15 day-laborer sites in the region, according to a study commissioned by COG. Some have been around for years, but the issue rose to national prominence last summer when Herndon officials began discussing spending taxpayer money to move day laborers from a gathering spot near a 7-Eleven to a more controlled site at the town's former police station.
A Herndon chapter of the Minuteman Project, a national group that fights illegal immigration, was formed recently and pledged to monitor day laborers with video and still cameras and turn information on employers who are hiring them over to the IRS in an effort to dry up the work.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa of Maryland Inc., the largest provider of services to Latinos in the state, said he has been working with other organizations to monitor day-laborer sites in the region. So far, he said, the Minutemen have not appeared at any sites outside Herndon.
"I think they targeted Virginia because, historically, it is a conservative state," Torres said in an interview between sessions of the conference on day laborers. "And they had a strategic failure with the Virginia elections."
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore ran ads accusing his opponent, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, of being soft on illegal immigration. Kaine beat Kilgore and did particularly well in Northern Virginia, an area that includes Herndon.
Those who gathered at yesterday's summit said that although immigration is a federal issue, day laborers have become a contentious local topic on a par with education, transportation and health care.
Carlos A. Castro, a native of El Salvador who has gone from being homeless and a day laborer to owning a grocery store chain, said government and social-services agencies should rethink their approach to the issue and even what the centers are called.
"We have to go beyond day-laborer centers," he said. "Just the title gives a sense of hopelessness. We have to think of something else to title it." He suggested establishing centers that serve immigrant families, not just day laborers. To show how serious he was, he pledged $5,000 toward such a center.