Northern Virginia leaders said yesterday that their communities have no resources to enforce federal immigration law and urged Jerry W. Kilgore to steer his campaign for governor clear of the debate over day laborers.
By opposing a proposed tax-supported site in Herndon for day laborers, whose ranks include illegal immigrants, the Republican candidate injected himself into a local zoning issue that should be resolved within the town's borders, the officials said.
"I would much rather have people who disagree with a regulated site say this approach is a better approach," said Herndon Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly, who campaigned on a promise to resolve his constituents' frustration with the crowded scene in a 7-Eleven parking lot most mornings as the laborers look for construction work.
"We're trying to deal with too many people standing on a street corner," O'Reilly said. "Mr. Kilgore is saying the only way we can deal with it is by arresting people."
On the other hand, Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling), whose district is near the proposed site in Herndon, said the town would be sending a mixed message if it aggressively pursued gang activity while looking the other way on, or actively supporting, illegal immigration.
"They thought they were solving a problem with jobs and loitering," he said of those who support the labor site. "In reality, they are creating a contradiction in public policy."
Kilgore, a former attorney general, denounced public funding for day laborer centers unless they serve only legal immigrants. He also said he supports legislation to give police the authority to detain illegal immigrants arrested for other crimes and turn them over to federal officials.
The debate over day laborers in the small town in northwestern Fairfax County landed on the radar of the statewide campaign three days after it emerged on the talk show airwaves of WMAL (630 AM).
Herndon officials kept the main phone lines in the municipal building unplugged for a fourth day yesterday after Mark Williams, a substitute host on "The Michael Graham Show," continued to denounce O'Reilly and other Herndon officials who support a gathering spot for day laborers. Town officials unplugged the phones Friday after Williams, broadcasting from Sacramento, urged listeners to "melt" the switchboard to complain that Herndon was embracing illegal immigrants.
"If they've moved to a more important topic by tomorrow, we'll turn the phones back on," said Town Manager Steve Owen. "They were ranting and raving and beating up on Herndon, so we kept them down." He said many callers and e-mailers used expletives to describe the day laborers and town officials who support a publicly financed site.
The day laborers are drawn to Northern Virginia's robust construction industry, which depends on low-wage workers to meet the demand for home building. Child care, landscaping and janitorial employers and the region's huge service industry provide jobs for thousands of the estimated 175,000 to 200,000 illegal workers in Virginia.
Arlington established the state's only tax-supported site for day laborers in the county's southern end four years ago. In Prince William County, workers congregate at a 7-Eleven in Woodbridge, but officials have declined to spend public money on a permanent site. Fairfax set aside $400,000 in this year's budget to pay for private outreach workers at the informal gathering place in Herndon, as well as sites in Annandale and Culmore.
As the debate spreads to encompass national immigration policy, supporters and skeptics of organized sites say outsiders such as Kilgore are obscuring the real issues.
"At a local level, I am not here to get involved in national issues of immigration," said Loudoun County Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), whose district borders the proposed site in Herndon. "What I want is a solution."
Although Snow said some of his constituents are concerned that the laborers are in the country illegally, the majority wants to make sure the neighborhood remains quiet and safe.
Arrests are fiercely opposed by immigrant rights advocates and by police officials, who said their departments would need time and costly training to perform such tasks.
"We're the local police, and we're dealing with local crime," said Fairfax County police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings. A state law that took effect last year allows police to arrest convicted felons who have reentered the country illegally after being deported.
Otherwise, if someone is discovered to be in the country illegally in the course of an arrest for a crime, "we can alert the authorities," she said. But an officer's primary concern is to enforce state and local, not federal, law, she added.
Others said a police crackdown would make all immigrants wary of reporting crimes.
"If they witness a crime, there will be fear of what the police will do to them," said Arlington County Supervisor Walter Tejada (D).
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) called Kilgore's proposal to have police make immigration arrests "demagoguery" that would cost taxpayers.
"We do not have the resources to somehow substitute ourselves for federal officials," he said, citing the "abject failure" of federal authorities to enforce immigration law.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.