Day-Labor Centers Spark Immigration Debate

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Publicly funded day-labor centers are caught in a debate over illegal immigration. Critics say such centers condone it; supporters see them as a way to find illegal immigrants work. A battle over a center in Herndon, Va., may end up in court.


All politics may be local, as the saying goes, but when the subject is immigration, a local debate can easily go national. That's what happened this week in Herndon, Virginia. The City Council there considered funding a work center for day laborers. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this report.


Herndon is a former dairy farm community, charming clapboard houses near a historic downtown that's seen big demographic changes in recent years. According to the last census, 38 percent of residents are now foreign-born. For several years, more than 100 men, mainly Hispanic, many illegal, have been crowding the parking lot of a 7-Eleven to be hired for day jobs. Locals say it's become unsightly and unsafe and worry the town is slipping out of their control. Everyone agrees, change is needed, but when officials suggested spending $170,000 in public money to create an official day labor center elsewhere, a fight broke out.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Most of the United States is talking about Herndon, Virginia. Who would have figured?

LUDDEN: A conservative radio station in nearby Washington, DC, devoted a dozen shows to the topic, accusing Herndon of promoting illegal immigration. National groups seeking to limit immigration picked up the drumbeat, and politicians started weighing in. When a talk-show host urged people to protest and gave out City Hall's phone number, so many called up, the town shut down its switchboard for four days.

(Soundbite of people talking)

LUDDEN: As the City Council met to vote this week, police barricaded the street, and officials set up video screens for the overflow crowd. Opponents of the day labor center turned out in red shirts with homemade American flag buttons. One held a sign that said: Start a revolution: Hire an American.

Mayor MICHAEL O'REILLY (Herndon, Virginia): We call this meeting to order. This is a meeting of the town of Herndon.

LUDDEN: Mayor Michael O'Reilly called on everyone to be courteous. The council then sat for nine hours of public comment with speakers almost evenly divided and equally passionate.

Ms. MARY BARTER(ph) (Resident): I'm Mary Barter. These men are spreading out all over Herndon. They will never use a new facility. They just want to gather to hang--a place to hang out. They now dwell in America, so now it's time for all nationalities to learn to live like Americans. This means learn how to speak English, learn how to have good hygiene, learn how to use appliances in their homes correctly, and then the pride will come to them.

Ms. SYLVIA C. WASHINGTON (Resident): My name is Sylvia C. Washington, and I am a resident of Herndon, Virginia. I can see that not only am I repulsed and insulted by the derogatory comments that have been slung by some of my neighbors, but if I close my eyes, it sounds like I'm back in time in Virginia and not too long ago. Only the names and the race has changed.

LUDDEN: For supporters of the day labor site, helping illegal immigrants is pragmatic, humane and the Christian thing to do. For opponents, if the federal government refuses to get a grip on illegal immigration, then places like Herndon must take a stand. Tom Fitton, of the public interest law group Judicial Watch, likened the work site to the local government running a brothel or drug-dealing center. He told council members he'd see them in court if they voted yes. After two nights of hearings, Herndon City Council did just that, approving the center 5-to-2. Abel Valenzuela teaches urban planning at the University of California and is one of the few academics who studied day labor sites. He says there are 63 such formalized centers across the country, most funded with some public money and most created in the past decade without much fuss.

Mr. ABEL VALENZUELA (University of California): Now I don't think you should take that to mean that these worker centers were created without any conflict or opposition. But I think what we see in Herndon is, in my opinion, an aberration, I think an extreme circus in which outsiders are trying to portray the creation of worker centers and the workers that use them, I think, unfairly and with really little empirical data.

LUDDEN: Still, Valenzuela says, questioning the legality of such centers appears to be a new strategy by groups who want to limit immigration. He's seen local fights in the past year from LA to Long Island. A few months ago, Arizona's legislature banned public funding of day labor sites. Valenzuela doubts such bans would hold up in court, but Herndon, Virginia, could provide a test case. A spokesman says Judicial Watch plans to file suit next week. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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