The throng of Latino immigrants gathering outside the 7-Eleven in downtown Herndon looking for a day's work has been the most noticeable part of this commercial district of shopping plazas and fast-food restaurants for almost a decade.

For as long as they've been there, the newcomers, many of them in the country illegally, have been at the center of ethnic and racial tensions simmering among Herndon's rapidly dwindling white majority and even among legal immigrants living in town.

But now, as town officials consider a plan to spend about $170,000 in taxpayer money to move the workers to a designated site in a residential neighborhood and staff it with social workers and English tutors, those emotions are exploding into the open.

"We are being really crushed by these Central American people," said Ruth Tatlock, 77, who has lived in Herndon for 31 years and supports the project. "It's a big influx in a small town. . . . But we have to be able to coexist somehow and do it on a decent level."

The town appears evenly split between those who are galled by the idea that their taxes would go to services for people in the country illegally and those relieved that the town is finally dealing with the issue.

Hundreds of residents flooded Town Hall for a public hearing on the proposal last week. Those in opposition wore white paper stars bearing anti-day laborer slogans on their shirts and picketed outside. Even more residents are expected to be in attendance when the Planning Commission votes on the issue Aug. 1.

As the Washington region absorbs thousands of new immigrants each week, Herndon has become a focal point in the suburbs' struggle to integrate those both legal and illegal. Arguments over federal immigration policy are played out every day there and are beginning to spill into the larger counties nearby.

Once a farming hamlet, Herndon is home to the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any jurisdiction in the Washington region: 38 percent of its 22,000 people. In the 1990s, the number of Latino immigrants nearly quadrupled; they now constitute 26 percent of the population. By contrast, the proportion of whites fell from 78 percent to 58 percent.

Every facet of life, from schools to neighborhoods to the town's downtown, has been affected by the influx, which was spurred by an abundance of affordable housing and good construction jobs (many of the immigrants helped raise the glass towers of the Dulles technology corridor nearby).

Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly is trying to steer the community toward some accommodation. Slightly less than half of voters cast ballots for him in last year's municipal elections; his opponents had expressed dismay at the presence of the day laborers.

"There's probably no other issue facing local governments that is more complicated than day laborer" sites, O'Reilly said. "There are constitutional issues, the right of assembly. There are national issues. There are local issues. It is very complex, and it brings out a lot of emotion in people."

Other jurisdictions are watching the developments in Herndon closely. Many say creating worker sites with public funds represents the best hope to resolve the touchy issue. But it also has become a flashpoint for the residents who look askance at the wholesale changes immigration has brought to their neighborhoods and downtowns.

Philip Jones, 44, of Herndon, a single father of two teenagers, views the day laborers as an additional threat to Herndon's once close-knit community. Every day, he said, he drives by the 7-Eleven and sees them catcall at women, drink and behave in unruly ways. His children are afraid to go into the store.

Now he fears that could be the scene near his home. The proposed day laborer site is in Jones's suburban neighborhood of split-level homes where Herndon borders Loudoun County. His neighbors dislike the idea so much, he says, that some may sell and leave town.

Complicating the issue for Jones was when people accused him of racism at last week's hearing.

"To be called a racist is unnerving. To have someone tell me to 'shove it' in a public forum, that's unnerving," Jones said after he finished speaking. "These day laborers are scary. They are unkempt. They swarm on top of you. They grab your car competing for work. . . . Why is it bigotry if I don't want that in my neighborhood?"

While he was speaking, eight day laborers walked into the municipal center. Jose Luis Arce, 46, who recently emigrated from Peru illegally, signed up to speak about the abuse he and his colleagues face at their jobs. After warily eyeing the placards and people wearing the white stars, he decided not to wait for his turn. But in an interview, he expressed concern over how immigrants are treated.

"We are qualified hands," he said in Spanish. "It's not important whether we have [immigration] papers or not. It's what we do and who we are as people."

The two men, it turns out, live a few miles from each other -- Jones in a home worth almost $500,000, Arce in a crowded rental that he shares with other immigrants. They shop in the same downtown grocery, Bestway, which offers a variety of ethnic products. But where Arce finds comfort food, Jones shops quickly and leaves. He said his daughter once was harassed there by a group of laborers.

Some longtime residents supporting the day laborers are angry that immigrants don't feel more welcome in Herndon. They say the town should take pride in the thriving ethnic businesses downtown and the town's new diversity.

"I'm ashamed to see what's happening here," said Abby Reyes, 31, who grew up in Herndon. "It's shocking to see what xenophobia and insecurity can bring."

Underneath the debate is a frustration at a national immigration policy that vacillates between neglect and harsh enforcement.

"The day laborers are the most public face of immigration in the region, and a lot of frustration at the U.S.'s broken immigration policy is being targeted at them," said Timothy Freilich, a lawyer at the Virginia Justice Center, which provides legal services for day workers.

Saying that problems related to illegal immigration are a federal responsibility, most Herndon officials have tried to prevent the topic from coming up in town debates. The mayor, for one, believes creating an official day laborer site should be decided on land-use issues alone.

The Herndon proposal, "Project Hope and Harmony," was created by a broad coalition of faith-based groups, nonprofit organizations and social workers. It calls for three people to manage the day workers at a soon-to-be vacant building that is now a temporary police headquarters. English classes and other social services could be offered as well. Fairfax County, which has allocated $400,000 to help staff day worker sites, has offered to help Herndon pay for its site.

Although organizers say the site is isolated from surrounding neighborhoods, residents worry that the workers will trample their yards and increase crime. Those residents believe that officials are siding with the day laborers rather than protecting voters who pay property taxes.

O'Reilly hopes that the discussion will remain civil. But that has been a challenge.

"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," O'Reilly said. "And I know this issue gives people a platform to scream and shout and show a lot of hatred, and that's unfortunate."

At last week's public hearing on Herndon's plan for a staffed day laborer site, some opponents wore these pins.At Elden Street and Alabama Drive in Herndon, day laborers congregate each morning in hopes that someone will drive up needing their help.