The ethnic and racial tensions that have erupted in Herndon ["Herndon Confronts Immigrant Tensions; Proposal to Fund Day Laborer Center a Test in Integration," front page, July 18] are found in dozens of Virginia communities where 7-Elevens and other convenience stores have become gathering places for illegal immigrants seeking day work. Similar situations exist in Arlington, Alexandria, Culpeper, Warrenton and Fredericksburg, and even in counties in Southside, where signs in Spanish are as ubiquitous as notices of tobacco auctions.

Should Herndon's leaders gin up $170,000 in taxpayer money to convert a soon-to-be vacant police headquarters into a hiring center named Project Hope and Harmony? Clearly, this is a decision for elected officials to make after holding public hearings.

If Fairfax County decides to help create this facility, it should be prepared to remodel every square foot available. After all, in addition to staffers, for which the county says it will provide $400,000, medical and employment specialists, day-care providers and other workers soon will be needed for the many immigrants its center will attract. Herndon's $170,000 proposed initial outlay inevitably will prove inadequate to accommodate the rush of newcomers.

Many good-hearted Herndon citizens castigate the center's opponents. "I'm ashamed to see what's happening here," one told a Post reporter.

Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly elevated the decibel level by saying, "I understand there are a lot of people upset about illegal immigration, and I understand there are a lot of people upset about the influx of Hispanics into the town of Herndon, whether illegal or legal . . . and I know this issue gives people a platform to scream and shout and show a lot of hatred, and that's unfortunate."

Perhaps xenophobes and haters are among the opponents of the project. But the evidence is overwhelming that an influx of poor immigrants -- whether Italians, Irish or Poles in the 19th and early 20th centuries or Hispanics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries -- does bring crime, unruly drinking, public urination, unemployment, overcrowded dwellings and property damage. Can't people of goodwill voice concern about the quality of life in their community without being subjected to name-calling?

Rather than create an expensive magnet that will attract even more outsiders to Herndon, O'Reilly should demand -- via Virginia's congressional delegation -- that the federal government face up to its responsibility regarding its immigration policies.

Too often Northern Virginia legislators engage in cant about our "being a nation of immigrants." That's true, but times have changed. Earlier immigrant flows were subject to periodic timeouts -- the Civil War, the 1883 depression, World War I, the immigration reform of the early 1920s and the Great Depression. These allowed for the difficult but comparatively harmonious blending of the newly arrived.

Since 1965, however, a nonstop and growing tide of immigrants, overwhelmingly from Latin America, has mitigated against assimilation, giving rise to the crisis that affects the Herndons of our state and nation. Federal lawmakers must decide if they want to pursue an open-borders policy -- which could mean many millions of people clamoring to enter our country. If that's the case, Washington -- not Herndon and not Fairfax County -- should pick up the tab.

The other option is to enforce our immigration laws. This would mean beefing up border patrols, imposing penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants, revising immigration criteria to emphasize skills required in our economy and deporting those who are in the country illegally. The Statue of Liberty may hoist the torch of freedom in one hand, but she grasps a book of laws in the other.

-- George W. Grayson

a former Democratic member

of the Virginia General Assembly,

teaches government

at the College of William & Mary.