The town may take another ill-advised swipe at day laborers.
Friday, August 22, 2008; Page A16
HERNDON OFFICIALS shouldn’t be surprised that day laborers are again crowding the town’s streets. When Herndon opened a center that connected employers with day laborers in 2005, the western Fairfax County town of 23,000 people — about a third of whom are Hispanic — found a sensible way to deal with an unregulated scramble for jobs that sed onto the town’s sidewalks. It also found itself at the focal point of a national debate about illegal immigration. Critics said the group that operated the center should check the immigration status of the laborers. Town officials shut the center last year. Now many of the officials who fought to close the center are scrambling for answers as they consider whether to take another ill-advised swipe at immigrants.
The reappearance of the laborers, who observers say number between 50 and 100, has irritated some citizens and officials. Most of the workers wait on Elden Street, where many of the town’s busiest retailers are located. But people have a constitutional right to seek jobs in public, so council member Dennis D. Husch has proposed a number of oblique approaches to make their lives difficult, such as attempting to remove pay phones and confiscating bicycles chained to trees and sign posts. He also suggests limiting alcohol s in the area where the laborers gather. Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis didn’t dismiss the suggestions but told us that he was hesitant to do anything to make the town less pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. Groups that support the laborers say that such rules are discriminatory and would probably be struck down in court.
Mr. Husch’s proposal is an unwitting admission that closing the center was a mistake. The center, which taught laborers English and provided them with small comforts such as coffee, kept workers from loitering. Before it opened, laborers jostled for work each morning outside a local 7-Eleven. It was a chaotic scene, and there were reports of public urination, fistfights and other misconduct. There haven’t been similar reports of misconduct since the center closed, but some residents say that the situation is worse now, because the laborers don’t confine themselves to the 7-Eleven.
The failure of the federal government to fix the immigration mess in Fairfax Countyand across the country has put a burden on local officials. But they still have options. They can embrace practical solutions, such as the laborer center. Or they can follow Herndon’s floundering example.