Anger on Herndon response to day labor problem is misplaced

My little town of Herndon, Virginia has been in the news lately. Okay, technically I do not live in Herndon. I am a couple miles outside its corporate limits. However, most of my mail is addressed to a Herndon, Virginia post office. I do not pay taxes to the Town of Herndon. Nevertheless, like it or not I get its newspaper delivered in my mailbox. In addition, since it is only a few miles away I do a fair amount of shopping inside the town. Since I have lived here 12 years, I feel something of a Herndonite.

I was sitting in our hotel room in Columbus, Ohio a few weeks ago and turned on CNN. I was surprised to find that the day laborer controversy in the town had escalated to national news. The Town of Herndon has a problem. Day laborers congregate around a 7-Eleven store at the corner of Alabama Drive and Elden Street in Herndon. Employers drive by every day and hire some of them. Most of the day laborers are Hispanic. Likely many of them are in this country illegally. You would think then that the Bureau of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (formally INS) might target the site. However, you would be wrong. ICE apparently has bigger fish to fry, or simply does not give a damn.

So every day for more than a decade 60-70 day laborers, the majority of whom are likely here illegally, congregate around the 7-Eleven and the nearby McDonalds and the Amoco gas station across the street hoping for day work. Many of them get work and others are disappointed. Some who get work are subsequently angry when the employers who hire them do not pay them agreed upon wages, or refused to pay them at all. Knowing that many are illegal, some employers figure they can get away with it.

For day laborers are considered independent contractors, not employees. They agree to do a day’s work for a given amount of money, and federal wage and hour laws do not necessarily apply. Just as I do not have to worry whether the firm that cuts my grass hires illegal workers, these employers do not have to burden themselves with checking for green cards. After all, at the end of the day these workers are history. In general, there is no paperwork to fill out. Day laborers jump into the employer’s truck or van and are off to a site for the day. Generally, they are returned to the same place in the evening. Wages are paid in cash at the end of the day. For workers here illegally, it is a great system. Moreover, if you are an employer who needs a few guys to pull weeds or to dig a trench you can get them locally for a song and at your convenience.

You would think that the Herndon police department would be rounding up these scofflaws and turning them over to ICE. You would be wrong. The Herndon police department has no such authority. The ICE will not give the town the authority, because their rules specify special training with ICE that involves at least twenty police officers. I doubt the Town of Herndon has that may police. In any event, apparently only two states, Alabama and Florida, are authorized to arrest illegal aliens on behalf of the ICE. So that’s out.

The presence of these people and particularly those wanting to hire them tends to slow the traffic on Elden Street, the town’s major thoroughfare. A police officer is stationed there during business hours to try to keep the traffic moving. Local charities also provide people to monitor the situation. The town never decided to set up this as a place for day laborers to congregate. It evolved over time because it was a convenient location. However, after more than ten years of dealing with the situation the town decided it had endured enough hassle and proposed an offsite day laborer center.

That was when the controversy started. A local conservative radio talk show host urged his listeners to call the Town of Herndon to complain about the idea. The town was subsequently inundated with calls, so much so that they had to disable their switchboard. Their web site also came careening to its knees. No less than the Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore railed against the idea of using public money to facilitate connecting some illegal immigrants with day jobs.

Amazingly, despite all this publicity, public officials in Herndon went ahead and voted for the day labor site anyhow. On August 17th, the Herndon Town Council by a 5-2 vote decided to go ahead with funding a new day laborer site behind an old police station. They will use $175,000 in town money to fund the site.

This has not sat well with those with an axe to grind. I get the feeling that most of the citizens of Herndon are for the site. The existing site has been a public nuisance for years. With local police’s hands tied, a new site away from traffic seemed to be a far better solution than allowing the problem to continue to fester. However, conservative commentators and politicians have pilloried Town of Herndon officials for their decision, saying they should be rounding up these illegal aliens instead. Even a lawsuit is now pending to stop construction.

The town is not authorized to be in the immigration enforcement business. Nor are any trespassing or loitering laws being violated. The town has documented clearly why its hands were tied. However, these commentators and politicians are more in favor of scoring political points than actually solving the problem. After all, this is not something occurring in their back yard.

If there is a problem in Herndon, it is not with town officials. It is with the ICE that cannot be bothered to arrest these people. In addition, the problem is exacerbated by regulations that tie the hands of local police departments. The problem also lies with the Congress and state officials, which allow employers to hire day laborers without requiring them to ensure they are hiring people legally. Instead, opponents would rather rail against elected leaders in Herndon, who are simply trying to solve a local problem. Their anger is misplaced.

The leaders of Herndon are to be commended for their pragmatic decision. It is not that I am in favor of day laborer sites in general, but they competently addressed a real problem to the community with the means they had available. Soon the traffic will flow more freely on Elden Streets and Alabama Drive. Should the ICE ever decide to crack down on illegal immigrants in Herndon, they should be easy to find at the new center. Meanwhile the people of Herndon get part of their community back again.

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