George Taplin, a retired U.S. Naval Officer and Herndon resident, has devised a strategy to confront illegal immigration in Herndon. Under the guidance of the Minutemen Project, a subsection of the National Minutemen Organization, Taplin hopes to create a volunteer-based group to monitor the hiring of undocumented citizens.
"This is what it's about, being an American — grassroots effort to solve problems our elected officials can't solve," said Taplin. "The day-labor issue is being used as a stepping stone for our officials to get to the next level."
In August, Herndon's Town Council approved, 5 to 2, an application by a local non-profit group to create a regulated day-labor hiring site in town. During the public hearing process, hundreds of residents testified for and against the creation of a regulated site. Those opposed said the site should not be funded through taxpayer money because the hiring of undocumented citizens is illegal. Residents for the site's creation said it would provide order to an unregulated activity that is currently occurring at the corner of Elden Street and Alabama Drive.
As one of the voices who opposed the creation of the day-labor site, and subsequently one of six plaintiffs suing the town to stop the site's creation, Taplin believes it is time for citizens to take matters into their own hands.
DURING AN OCT. 20 MEETING, roughly 40 concerned citizens crowded into a room at the Herndon Fortnightly Library to hear Taplin's strategy for curbing day-worker employment. Standing in front of a revised World War II poster of the iconoclastic "I Want You" Uncle Sam recruiting citizens to stop illegal immigration, Taplin began the meeting by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, before explaining the project.
As a card-carrying Minuteman, Taplin explained the ethos of the organization and the strategy he has envisioned for the Herndon organization.
The action-oriented focus of the group will be divided into four surveillance teams. Each team will attempt to document illegal immigration, illegal employment, zoning violations and the misuse of public funds, he said. By stationing themselves at formal and informal labor sites, as well as following laborers to work and even to their homes, these teams will record "evidence" with digital cameras and camcorders, said Taplin. The fifth team will then compile this information into a database and send the results to the Internal Revenue Service, the Virginia State Employment Commission, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.
"If this doesn't make people who run commerce in Herndon take notice, then I don't know what will," said Taplin. "We are going to expose them."
THE ISSUE OF DOCUMENTING workers at labor sites, and even outside their residences, raised a few eyebrows with some people attending the meeting. Deborah Aylward, a local professional investigator and native Washingtonian, raised a concern that volunteers would be putting themselves in a dangerous position should they attempt to engage in mobile or fixed surveillance.
"This is the first organization like this that I have ever seen that wants to engage in mobile surveillance," she said. "I do not agree with this organization's method and will oppose it strongly."
After the meeting Aylward brought up a number of issues that could potentially harm volunteers.
Untrained volunteers with no background in surveillance could put themselves, and others, at risk when operating equipment while negotiating with Herndon traffic, she said. The possibility of confrontations arising from recording strangers is another concern.
Specifically, Aylward is concerned with the possibility of volunteers encroaching upon Virginia Domestic Violence Laws that protect citizens against stalking, she said.
While licensed professionals are able to record the actions of citizens and receive financial compensation, the Herndon Minutemen, who are not licensed for this type of work, will be accepting financial contributions.
"I want to hear what they have planned to see if they are breaking any rules," said Aylward. "They are not being paid but are taking contributions ... it is a gray area."
There are other ways to obtain the incriminating information that Taplin and his volunteers seek, said Aylward, which is the reason she has agreed to volunteer as a consultant for the organization.
Another concern regarding the monitoring of workers was raised by Ricardo Cabellos, a Loudoun County resident. Cabellos quickly became the target of a heated argument by audience members after questioning the group's methods. Bringing up the question of racial profiling, remarks like "go back to Mexico" and "shut up and sit down" were yelled at Cabellos when he questioned how the group could accurately monitor workers without personal information about their history.
"We're just going to take pictures, not ask for identification," said Taplin. "Identification will come over time. If you are attending formal or informal sites, I am going to take your picture. I don't want to know who you are."
When accused of engaging in divisive actions, Taplin responded by saying "I don't think we are being divisive. I think the illegal aliens are."
UNDERNEATH THE RHETORIC that was thrown back and forth by Cabellos and members of the audience during the debate, the question pinpointed a major complication in the method of the organization.
Taplin never said how the group would know who was in the country legally or illegally. And, while compiling the information into the database and ultimately sending the information to enforcement agencies, Taplin never specified how the group will show laws are being broken. His only explanation for the validity of the project is based on the law of statistics, he said. Based off of his interpretation of a study done by Fairfax County, Taplin said he believes that 85-percent of the laborers being hired are illegal. Thus, if contractors are using labor sites to gain employees, it suggests they are hiring illegal workers, he said. By collecting the names of contractors who are participating in hiring workers at labor sites, state and federal organizations can use that information for further investigation, he said. Taplin hopes that this will eventually scare contractors away from labor sites, drying up the source of employment and forcing illegal workers to find other areas of the region where there are employment opportunities.
THE MAJORITY OF ATTENDEES were intrigued by the alternative, grassroots way of confronting illegal immigration. Steve Chrichton, Herndon resident, came to the meeting because he is disappointed with the change in the Iron Ridge neighborhood where he is a longtime resident.
"I'm just interested in what they had to say about immigration," said Chrichton. "In the 18 years we've lived there it was beautiful and now there are two houses that look like apartment complexes. It's upsetting to see that type of change in this neighborhood."
Because it is a grassroots group, prospective volunteers like Chrichton were reminded that all equipment will be provided independently. The operations are currently funded by Taplin, although he hopes the organization will eventually pool its funds.
The advent of a citizen-run organization that actively monitors illegal hiring and zoning laws opens a new chapter in the local debate over immigration.
"Americans are big-hearted people," said Connie Hair, a representative of the Arlington Minutemen media office. "But if the American people opened its arms to everyone, the world would tilt and the American Dream would be ruined."