A pickup truck pulls up to the green-and-white striped tent where men in paint-spattered work pants lounge on wooden benches, chatting in Spanish and sipping mango juice.
One by one, the men leave for a day’s work. By closing time, 11 a.m., 30 employers will have hired 50 men.
The labor center was opened to help this small but growing suburb of Washington deal with the influx of workers, an estimated three-quarters of them in the United States illegally, who were congregating on a downtown corner looking for jobs.
It’s little different than the 63 centers that have popped up in 17 states—including one in Jupiter in south Florida—around a country struggling with an illegal immigration problem. But its existence, much like its creation, has been mired in debate, and after just 18 months, the future of the Herndon Official Workers Center is uncertain.
A newly elected Town Council wants workers to prove they are in the country legally—a move many fear will push the problem back on the streets.
Thirty miles down the road from the marbled U.S. Capitol building, Herndon officials are trying to curb their illegal immigrant population: adopting English as the official language; training police officers to detain undocumented immigrants; requiring small businesses to employ only documented workers.
“This is definitely an instance of doing things because the politicians aren’t, ” council member Dennis Husch said. “This town council was given marching orders from the citizens of this community.”
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Herndon was a small farming town until a flurry of high-tech companies began to move into the area in the 1980s and 1990s, creating a building boom of residential communities. The need for construction workers, landscapers and carpenters fueled Herndon’s immigrant population.
By 2000, a quarter of Herndon’s 22, 000 residents were Hispanic, many from Central America. Now, it’s closer to a third.
The immigrant impact can be seen in the long lines at the fish counter at the grocery store on Sunday nights, the enclaves of apartment complexes almost completely occupied by Hispanics and the proliferation of Central American restaurants.
And for years it could be seen at the parking lot outside the 7-Eleven on Elden Street, the main commercial strip through town. That’s where 70 or more men would stand each day waiting for work, swarming around cars when a driver approached.
Residents grew frustrated with the trash, public urination and other problems. The town tried to bring some order to a chaotic situation—opening a day labor center on the outskirts of town while also making it illegal to solicit for work on the street.
One hundred twelve workers arrived on that first frigid morning in December 2005. Minutemen, part of a national group that fights illegal immigration, jotted down the license plates of employers. Local contractors started arriving in unmarked vehicles.
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Workers are selected based on a lottery system designed to give each of them an equal chance at a job. Sometimes, they are taken out of order if an employer needs a particular skill or wants someone they have hired before.
While the men wait to be hired, they can take English classes taught by volunteers in a nearby trailer or snack on plantain chips, pupusa and beans and rice sold next door.
Some workers interviewed refused to say whether they were in the country legally. Others said they were not worried about the center’s future because they had faith God would help them.
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The town council has asked Reston Interfaith, the nonprofit group that runs the center under a $175, 000 contract with Fairfax County, to start asking workers their status. The group refused.
Recent court rulings around the nation have struck down laws forbidding day laborers from soliciting work on the street—unless localities have provided workers with an alternative remedy, like a day labor center.
While the center’s future is unclear, the town’s crackdown on illegal immigration is not.
“The rest of the country should take notice what has happened in Herndon, ” said Aubrey Stokes, a member of Help Save Herndon, a group formed to oppose the center. “The lesson is that politicians work for people and if they don’t do their job, they should be held accountable.”