Nearly 50 residents gathered to speak out against a proposed formal day labor site in town during a public meeting at the Herndon Community Center.
Organized by Herndon resident Dennis Baughn, the purpose of the June 27 meeting was to hear additional public comment regarding the day labor population, reasons for or against supporting a formal day labor site in town and to generate potential solutions.
Currently Herndon's day labor population gather in the side parking lot of the 7-Eleven on corner of Alabama Drive and Elden Street hoping to find work every morning. Many residents have expressed concerns toward what has now become an informal day labor site, saying they will not shop at the 7-Eleven or even pull into the parking lot for fear of their car being crowded by workers seeking employment.
Proponents for a formal day labor site in town say a regulated site would be beneficial for many reasons. It would vacate the 7-Eleven parking lot, it would offer a regulated location for workers to be placed in jobs based on their skill level and it would allow for the screening of employers to ensure workers will be treated fairly, among other things.
"I held this meeting because I do not feel the way it's been handled has been done appropriately," said Baughn. "I have lived in Herndon since 1949 and I know a lot of people and I don't hear many citizens talking in favor of this site."
While residents spoke out at the community center, the Planning Commission was in a work session reviewing an application submitted by Project Hope and Harmony to create a formal day labor site at the existing Herndon Police station, once it is vacated.
Formed in September 2004, Project Hope and Harmony is an organization comprised of area non-profit organizations, business representatives, day laborers and residents wanting to find a solution to the day labor problem in town.
After attending a Hope and Harmony meeting, Baughn said he knew there were more concerned residents in the community than those in attendance.
"I want it to be an open process," he said about the potential creation of a formal site in town. "I'm trying to get Project Hope and Harmony to … announce their next meetings so people have time to plan to attend."
DURING THE JUNE 27 meeting residents voiced their frustrations with the current day labor situation. Many homeowners said they were against creating any formal day labor site in town because they felt it would only bring in more day laborers to the area.
Others did not want a formal site at the police station and were worried that there would be no way to regulate workers at the site, or keep them from walking through neighbors' yards. A majority of concerns were centered around the legal status of workers and the liability of hiring illegal immigrants.
Sharon Hamann, a resident near Alabama Drive, said although she did not agree with a formal day labor site in town, she also did not want the informal site to continue operating at the 7-Eleven off of Alabama Drive and Elden Street.
Joe Fisher, Herndon resident and professional contractor, said he was worried that unskilled workers were being hired, which results in unsafe work environments and potentially serious injuries to workers.
"There's people here — fools, absolute fools — who think anyone can go out and do construction," Fisher said, raising his voice and pointing his finger at Project Hope and Harmony representatives. Fisher said he thinks the town should not rush into formalizing a day labor site, that it should instead focus on legality issues.
"I think we're getting something shoved down our throats and that's wrong, real wrong," he said. "People keep saying the construction industry needs a day labor site, nothing could be further from the truth."
As organizer of the meeting, Baughn selected five guest speakers to talk about existing organized day labor sites in other jurisdictions, health issues, employment requirements to legally work and the impact a day labor site could have on local contractors.
Alexander Odeh, area resident, said he did not think a formal facility would bring all the workers to the site. He said workers who did not want to walk the distance would remain at the 7-Eleven, or move elsewhere. He said then the town could be faced with multiple informal site locations.
"I don't know that this will add a benefit," he said about Project Hope and Harmony's statement that a formalized site would benefit the town.
"I have an obligation to be fair to everybody, and everybody has a right to be treated equally — within the legal bounds," he said. "If they are illegal, they're not entitled to the same rights as legal citizens."
TOWN COUNCIL MEMBERS Steven Mitchell and Ann Null were present at the meeting, although neither were in attendance in an official capacity.
Speakers addressed many questions to Mitchell; Null arrived more than an hour later after attending the Planning Commission hearing.
Mitchell said many of the legal questions should be answered by Richard Kaufman, town attorney.
Residents wanted to know why workers were not being arrested for loitering along Alabama Drive. Mitchell said his understanding was that they were not breaking the law by standing on public property.
Kaufman said because the town does not have a loitering law, the workers cannot be arrested for loitering. He added although Fairfax County has a loitering law, technically under that definition workers are not in violation because they are waiting for employment. He also said when standing on 7-Eleven property, it is up to the corporation's management to enforce any laws, or ask workers to leave the site.
"All these issues were very thoroughly publicized and debated two years ago," said Kaufman.
"We don't deal with laws of immigration at the town level," he said. "Those are issues taken care of at the federal and state level."
At the end of the meeting Null said she thought the United States government and President Bush have failed Americans by not securing the nation's borders, resulting in a "whole gamut of problems."
"Herndon has also failed us," she said, explaining because of certain services offered in town, she thinks the town has "invited this upon itself."
Comparing Herndon to Great Falls and other neighboring jurisdictions, she said Herndon is faced with this increasing problem because it is a welcoming community.
"I suggest that we make Herndon unwelcome to illegals," she said. "It is brutal, but I think to whom is that brutal? To the law abiding people of Herndon who are paying taxes, or the people coming in who are jumping ahead in line?"
Mitchell said instead of continually debating the same issues, he thinks action needs to be taken, even if mistakes are made in the beginning.
"This site exists," he said. "We can't be ignorant to the fact that it's there. We cannot enforce the laws you think we have, unless we have a designated site."
Mitchell said once a site is created, the council could create ordinances that would make it illegal for anyone to solicit work outside of the official pick up site. He also said any employers found picking up workers off site would face additional penalties.
WITH MOST OF THE PUBLIC hearing focused on concerns and complaints about the workers in town, little time was left to develop ideas for a solution to the problem.
Toward the end of the meeting Hamann, frustrated with resident comment against the police station site, said something needed to be done.
"We keep complaining about this," she said. "But what's the solution?"
Trying to make residents understand her situation, she explained to them what she experiences on a regular basis.
"I live on Missouri Avenue — how many of you have called the police to pick up drunks from your yard?" she asked. "Everyone has this 'not in my neighborhood' attitude, but if you want to keep it in my neighborhood you better come up with a solution."
A day after the meeting, Sarah Ince, executive council member Project Hope and Harmony, said the group's proposal is just one solution to the problem.
Asked to attend the meeting by Baughn to explain Hope and Harmony's mission, Ince was quickly bombarded by resident questions about the site.
Because Project Hope and Harmony is one of the first groups to actually submit a proposed solution, she said they were anticipating resistance expressed during the June 27 forum. But she also said they are committed to finding a solution, and if residents have other suggestions they welcome the dialogue.
"Many of [the laborers] have said they welcome the opportunity to not be at the 7-Eleven," she said. "A lot of the laborers don't like the way it works at the 7-Eleven either."
Joel Mills, executive council member Project Hope and Harmony, was also present at the meeting.
"We knew going into this that we're not going to get everyone to support us," he said. "But we're going to continue with our efforts because in the long term they're all going to be a part of the solution."
Baughn said he too has come up with a solution, but one that tries to tackle the problem at the county and state levels.
"I want to have a committee to come up with another plan that is not so socially oriented," he said. "And more labor oriented and that is closer to meeting the needs of the community."
Baughn said he proposes doing this through a Blue Ribbon Commission, a task force created to lobby for county and state legislation to address the immigration issues in town.
"If those men were legal, they wouldn't be on the corner looking for work," he said. "These sites do not work, what they do do is attract more workers."
Baughn said because police are present at the 7-Eleven site, because the site is easily accessible for workers and because the town is not paying for the current site, he doesn't think anything should be immediately changed.
"My solution is this labor site has there since '85, in my opinion," he said. "Legislation is being drafted now that is going to address these concerns of the citizens. So, I think we should go along for another year and see what happens."
Baughn said at the next scheduled meeting Wednesday, July 6, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Herndon Fortnightly Library, he hopes to hear additional public comment and to initiate the Blue Ribbon Commission.