On Wednesday night the Herndon Town Council approved the creation of a formal day-laborer site after weeks of contentious debate [front page, Aug. 18] -- but not before this local issue became a rallying point for advocates for national immigration reform. For example:
* Erin Anderson appeared before the council to say that 3,000 illegal immigrants a night pass through a valley in southern Arizona, where her family owns land, and that some of these immigrants were coming to Virginia. She lectured the Herndon Planning Commission about how illegal immigrants spread diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy and HIV.
* Mark Williams, a radio talk show host from Sacramento, who is carried locally by WMAL-AM, told his listeners to call Herndon to urge the rejection of the planned day-laborer site. Another WMAL-AM talk show host, Chris Core, termed Herndon a beachhead for the national battle for immigration reform and broadcast live one night from outside the council chambers.
* Judicial Watch threatened to file suit against Herndon over the center, claiming that it is illegal to build a facility that could encourage illegal immigration.
* The Federation for American Immigration Reform opposed public support for the center, claiming that lawmakers should not help illegal immigrants.
All these critics saw a chance to get attention for their views, but they all missed the point.
First, Herndon officials are in no position to investigate or enforce federal immigration laws.
Second, most local residents who objected to the proposed day-laborer site did so based on its location, not on some philosophical or political objection. Opponents living near the proposed site worried about the possible adverse effect on their neighborhood, but many said that they did not oppose Herndon's plan to set up a formal site for day laborers at another location.
Third, and most important, the town rightfully was seeking to improve the horrendous conditions -- a local problem -- facing Herndon's day laborers.
More than 53 percent of day laborers in Fairfax County have reported at least one instance of not being paid for their work, and 26 percent report being paid with bad checks. Almost 55 percent of those surveyed by the county said they were paid less than had been agreed, and nearly 60 percent were allowed no breaks when working. Twenty-two percent reported having been abandoned at a work site to find their own way home, and 16 percent said they faced violence at work.
These findings are consistent with a recent study of area day laborers -- including those in Herndon -- by the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at the University of California, Los Angeles. This study found that the average wage of a day laborer in the D.C. area was $991 a month. That figure was based on June 2004, a warm-weather month, when work is more plentiful.
Day laborers in Herndon live an average of 1.7 miles from the informal site where they have been congregating, making many of them Herndon residents. They are husbands, fathers and sons seeking to support themselves and their families. They desire a good education for their children. They have aspirations to better their lives. They are part of Herndon.
The decision by the Town Council to develop a regulated site for these day laborers came after a full and open debate on the plan. Although Loudoun County is now threatening to block construction of the center over zoning issues, to treat these workers with dignity and justice was the right decision, and it will improve and strengthen Herndon.
-- Charles Greenfield
is executive director of Legal Services of Northern Virginia.