The slate-gray light of a wintry morning hung over the 7-Eleven parking lot just after sunrise yesterday when a murmur rippled through the crowd of men gathered there: "Look, they are coming."
Heads turned in unison to a dozen people moving toward them on Elden Street in Herndon. Although the men's clothing -- work boots and bluejeans -- revealed them as day laborers, the new group wore warm winter coats and snug-fitting gloves and carried cameras with long lenses, a camcorder, a couple of walkie-talkies and a clipboard list of license plate numbers collected on previous visits.
"The day is ruined. They're going to scare off the employers," Alex Aleman, a 32-year-old Honduran in a black ski cap, told his friends in Spanish. "When they come, we don't eat."
It was the start of an almost-weekly ritual in this Northern Virginia town that began in mid-October when locals who object to the informal day-laborer site formed a Herndon branch of the Minuteman Project, a national group that actively opposes illegal immigration.
The Minutemen train their lenses on contractors who drive to the lot at Elden Street and Alabama Drive to hire the day laborers, many of whom are in the country illegally. They say they plan to hand the photographs to the Internal Revenue Service for investigation.
The two groups never speak. Separated by only a few feet, they are worlds apart.
License Plate Numbers
A white van with green lettering on the side moved slowly down Alabama Drive. The letters described services -- painting, construction, remodeling -- but there was no company name. It was the third time it had circled the block in about 25 minutes.
"Doug," called out George Taplin, the leader of the Minutemen, "there's that van again. Did you get a picture?"
Doug Hillgreen lifted a camera hanging by a strap on his chest and snapped a photo of the license plate number of the van.
He reached beneath his jacket, took out a pack of cigarettes and had a smoke. Hillgreen, who works in telecommunications, said his son, 20, had lost two jobs in the past two years -- one at a sawmill and one in construction -- because his bosses hired day laborers.
"It's because of that and for security reasons," he said, explaining his motivation for joining the Minutemen.
When he raised his camera to get a picture of the white van, the driver sped off.
"Lisa," Taplin said, using his telephoto lens to zoom in on the license plate of a truck backing out of a parking space at the 7-Eleven. "Did you get the license plate of that white truck?"
As he called out the numbers, Lisa Turner wrote them down and then cross-checked the plate number with the list of licenses from previous visits.
Turner, a mother of three young boys who was dressed in a red coat with black hat and scarf, said she joined the group after meeting Taplin at her chiropractor's office.
"They're getting free services," she said of the day laborers. "The employers are breaking the law because they are not paying taxes on the wages."
The Minutemen and the men in search of work stood in the cold across the street from each other, both waiting for employers to show up. But business was slow. Sometimes five or 10 minutes would pass before another contractor pulled up.
Taplin used one lull to make a point he thought important.
"I don't care about them," he said as the laborers stared across at him. "I don't mean I don't care about them on a human level, but on this issue. We are interested in the employers."
A Work Offer
Jose Abrego watched the man in the gray-and-black parka who seemed to be giving instructions to the woman in the red coat with the clipboard.
"I think he's their leader," said Abrego, a 43-year-old father of five from Honduras.
Behind Abrego, a community organizer began handing the day laborers maps to a new county-funded hiring site that was approved by the Town Council after a bitter, months-long debate. It's set to open next week. But most of the laborers were enthralled by the sight of the Minutemen.
Aleman wondered whether someone was paying the Minutemen. How else could they find the time to be snapping photos on a workday? Well, he added, unless they were rich and had no need to work.
"Just imagine," he said with a frown. "They have all that money, and I'm standing here with only one dollar in my pocket."
Luis Hererra, 32, a Salvadoran who arrived four months ago, wanted to know whether it was legal for the Minutemen to photograph people against their will.
"I'm in a foreign country now," Hererra said. "I don't know the laws here yet." Then Hererra's voice trailed off as he noticed a crowd beginning to form around an alcove near the entrance to the 7-Eleven. A contractor had quietly slipped in there, out of sight of the Minutemen, and was beckoning to the workers.
"I need someone who knows how to grout," the contractor, a tall man with white hair under a red baseball cap, announced in Spanish.
The workers pressed forward excitedly, then stopped short as the contractor held up his hand, "But -- it needs to be someone who can speak English."
There was a moment's silence. "I speak English," a young-looking man said hesitantly. "But I've never done grouting. Do you need someone with a lot of experience?"
"Yes," the contractor answered firmly. "This is going to be a very expensive kitchen in a very expensive house. The work has to be done extremely well."
"I have lots of experience, but no English," a man in a white sweat shirt said miserably.
Hererra dug his hand into a pocket of his blue sweat jacket, clenching his fist around a key chain with a picture of his 3-year-old daughter. She keeps asking why he doesn't come home to tuck her in at night, and he hopes that someday he'll be able to send her enough money to make her understand. But first he has to pay off the $5,500 he borrowed to pay the smuggler who helped him across the border.
"Maybe you could hire two of us -- one who speaks English and one who knows how to grout?" he asked with hope.
A Complicated Issue
At 8:11 a.m., Taplin said: "Okay, we're done. Let's go."
The Minutemen had been on the street less than an hour, and Taplin told them to head back to the nearby diner where they'd parked.
"Once we leave, that's when the contractors come around," Taplin said. "What these guys don't know is that we have two guys who stay behind to take pictures after the group leaves."
A few members departed when they reached the diner, but some went inside for coffee. Hillgreen ordered an omelet. They talked about the complexity of illegal immigration and the financial effect it has on their community. They complained that the local, state and federal governments do nothing about illegal immigrants except point fingers at one other. They said they are determined to shine a light on the issue.
Hillgreen finished his omelet, and by 9:15 a.m. they were on the way out the door. "Time to go to my real job," Hillgreen said.
They walked down the front steps of the diner, and Taplin glanced toward the 7-Eleven. A white pickup was surrounded by day laborers. "Look at that," Taplin said, raising his camera for one final shot.