Virginia Town Shuts Day-Labor Center

After two years of local disputes over a center that employs day laborers, the Northern Virginia town of Herndon finds itself back at square one. Town officials announced they are closing the controversial worker center.

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On Friday, the Northern Virginia town of Herndon will close a controversial worker center for immigrant day laborers. The center was hardly the first of its kind, but Herndon became a high-profile test case when activists against illegal immigration sued the town for publicly funding the site.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: When Herndon approved its day labor center, it also passed an anti-solicitation ordinance, a law aimed at stopping the informal street corner hires that citizens say have blocked traffic and disrupted business in local 7- Eleven parking lots. It was a lawsuit over that which proved that worker center is unraveling. In general, courts have said if a town wants to enforce an anti- solicitation law, essentially regulating free speech, it has to provide another outlet for that speech, like a worker center. But earlier this month, a circuit court judge said Herndon's worker center didn't meet that standard because the town wanted to keep illegal immigrants from using it.

DENNIS HUSCH: It's a rock in a hard place.

LUDDEN: Dennis Husch is Herndon's vice mayor. He finds it ironic that the law forbids hiring illegal immigrants, yet courts citing the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause say public worker centers must serve illegal immigrants.

HUSCH: And my constituents are certainly not going to support any decision I make where that occurs. They don't want their tax money spent to a bet, illegal aliens finding employment.

LUDDEN: Immigrant advocates lauded the court ruling for equal rights. Town officials say the closure of the center is a victory. But in essence, Herndon will now go back to square one.

Bill Threlkeld is with Project Hope & Harmony, which has managed the worker center. He says starting next week, the center's 100-plus day laborers have agreed to meet each morning on the strip of grass next to a public park, just a block from the 7-Eleven parking lot where they used to solicit jobs. Some predict a return to chaos, but Threlkeld believes the lottery system he used at the center, plus the English classes and civic training he offered workers, will pay off.

BILL THRELKELD: So they do know something about how to better conduct themselves. I think that they will probably experiment on the street with ways to maintain a reasonable amount of order in the process of soliciting work.

LUDDEN: Still, more legal wrangling could come. Chris Newman is with the National Day-Labor Organizing Network. He says last year, a judge in Mamaroneck, New York, ruled that police had engaged in racially motivated harassment of day laborers. They were enforcing the same zoning and traffic laws that Herndon is now left with.

CHRIS NEWMAN: The elimination of the anti-solicitation ordinance was a good thing, and it was a victory for day laborers. But we're all still very concerned about how the town council will enforce its laws once the day laborers are back in public areas.

STEVEN DEBENEDITTIS: Now, we're certainly not going harass anyone.

LUDDEN: Steven Debenedittis is Herndon's mayor. He came to office last year when the voters routed the old city council and elected candidates who promised to end public funding for the worker center. Debenedittis believes localities can discourage illegal workers. He says there may be 100-day laborers in Herndon today...

DEBENEDITTIS: But it didn't start with 100 overnight and had the town taken the course that we're taking now and disperse groups from gathering on private property. I don't think we'd be in a situation we are now.

LUDDEN: Tom Fitton heads Judicial Watch, the group that sued Herndon. Whatever happens, Fitton says taxpayer's support for day-labor sites is no longer uncontroversial.

TOM FITTON: Across the country, local citizens are opposing these day-labor sites, and this a dramatic development that's occurred over the last two years. And frankly, it all started with Herndon.

LUDDEN: Meanwhile, the actual issue of public funding of these sites is yet to be heard in a court. Fitton says the first trial could take place as early as October in Laguna Beach, California.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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