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Herndon: Under National Magnifying Glass

Small-town life faces immigration, day labor issues.

Herndon became a flashpoint for the national debate on immigration about one year ago when the large number of temporary day laborers in Herndon and the surrounding areas began to congregate in increasing numbers as they solicited work in commercial parking lots along south Elden Street.

In July 2005, then-mayor Michael O’Reilly and council opened the debate about the potential of allowing a non-profit organization named Project Hope & Harmony to use a mostly vacant municipal lot on Sterling Road on the west side of town at a discounted rental fee to run a formalized workers' center. The formalized site would allow the town to keep day laborers off private commercial property.

The site would be run primarily with the funds from a $175,000 contract between Project Hope & Harmony and the governing body of Fairfax County to provide a solution for the growing day laborer loitering problem throughout the area. All that was needed was the use of a property in Herndon that would be convenient enough so laborers would congregate there as opposed to on the streets.

WHEN THE TOWN Council opened for discussion this possible solution of allowing a conditional use permit for Project Hope & Harmony at a public hearing, the flood gates opened. Hundreds of people throughout the area impassioned by immigration issues came to speak their minds to the council.

While those in favor of the site stated that it was merely a practical solution to a growing local problem, those opposed stated that no government resources — and in this case, municipal property — should house a resource that could be utilized by illegal immigrants.

The most glaring issue for those opposed to the workers’ center was that site administrators did not require workers to show proof of legal U.S. work documents. Those in favor said that this requirement would make the site ineffective at keeping the laborers off private property, as both sides assumed that a large majority of them were in the country without formal documentation.

The issue grew to such proportions that it attracted the attention of CNN anchor and anti-illegal immigration activist Lou Dobbs, conservative immigration reformist U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and a range of conservative media pundits throughout the country - all of whom were strongly opposed to the town of Herndon using any publicly-owned resource to house a site that could be utilized for non-legal residents.

The controversy caused some Herndon residents to found their own chapter of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps — the organization that voluntarily patrols the United States border with Mexico and reports signs of illegal immigrant entrances.

Following several weeks of debate, the Town Council voted 5 - 2 on Aug. 17 to allow the site to be established on municipal property. Casting the two opposing votes were council members Dennis Husch and Ann Null.

As a result of the establishment of the site, both the town of Herndon and Fairfax County are presently facing a lawsuit brought on by Herndon and Fairfax County residents represented by the Washington, D.C.-based conservative advocacy group, Judicial Watch.

Since its opening on Dec. 14, the Herndon Official Worker’s Center has seen about 6,000 different labor positions filled. It is currently located at 1481 Sterling Road.

LESS THAN SIX MONTHS following the opening of the Herndon Official Worker’s Center were the Town Council elections.

Two slates of candidates quickly emerged in the months leading up to the Town Council elections.

One slate included incumbent mayor O’Reilly; Carol Bruce, Steve Mitchell and Harlon Reece, three incumbent council members who had all voted to approve the use of the property for the site; and local Hispanic businessman and a native of El Salvador, Jorge Rochac.

A mixed slate of Town Council veterans and political newcomers formed the opposition, each candidate opposed in one way or another to the sitting Town Council’s decision to approve the center.

Mayoral challenger Steve DeBenedittis, who had first arrived to the stage of Herndon politics several months earlier as one of the speakers opposed to the establishment of the site, led the opposition. Incumbent Husch, Town Council veterans Bill Tirrell and Connie Hutchinson, as well as newcomers Dave Kirby and Charlie Waddell, backed his candidacy.

Two seats were vacant as both former vice mayor Darryl Smith and council member Null decided not to run for re-election.

The residents themselves began to draw political battle lines as grassroots organizations such as the pro-labor site group, “Herndon Embraces All with Respect and Tolerance” (HEART), and the opposition organization, “Help Save Herndon,” mobilized to assist their respective favored candidates in their campaigns.

On May 2, 2006, Herndon residents supported

DeBenedittis and his slate of challengers. The final remaining seat went to incumbent Reece.

While it appears that there are no immediate plans to shut down the site upon the beginning of the new Town Council's terms, there is serious talk among some members about moving it off of municipal property or changing how it is regulated. The conditional use permit granted to Project Hope & Harmony in August 2005 does not expire until September of 2007.

AS THE DEBATE over the town’s day labor site continues, so does Herndon’s progress as a town striving to offer a unique blend of services to its citizens.

Approved in May 2006, the town’s budget for 2007 fiscal year has allotted more than $1 million to be used in the construction of a Nature Center at Runnymede Park off of Herndon Parkway.

This project has been in the works for more than a decade and has attracted the attention of some residents and community leaders who have questioned the significant portion of the budget being spent to construct the building.

The council amended the town budget in the days leading up to its proposal to allow for $25,000 in funding to be used towards the preliminary design phase of a local skate park after Herndon’s youthful skateboarding enthusiasts lobbied successfully for the advancement of the project. If it remains on schedule, the park's construction is due to begin in the summer of 2007.

The newly-seated Town Council will also be integral in the approval phase for the revitalization of Herndon’s historic downtown. Town officials are currently exploring the possibility of a public-private partnership and applying for grants and other funding measures.