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National issues Propel Town to Center Stage

Resident regularly witness microcosm of national immigration debate.

Since local elections earlier this year resulted in the ouster of two council incumbents and the mayor in what was largely seen to be a referendum on illegal immigration, Herndon residents have regularly been witness to television crews and national press coverage looking for the latest from a town that has taken up arms in the battle against illegal immigrants.

And the attention has not gone unnoticed by national as well as regional advocacy groups.

For Joel Mills, a Herndon resident and executive board member of Project Hope & Harmony, the faith-based organization that was chartered last year to run a controversial day labor site in Herndon, the interest of national advocacy groups that are operating in Herndon is all about location.

"We’re conveniently located right outside of Washington, D.C., so the national media groups based in Washington have seen Herndon as a nice little backdrop to dramatize the issue" of illegal immigration, said Mills, who has been a guest on CNN‘s "Lou Dobbs Tonight" several times. "Because Herndon has been so well-covered by the national media, it has a profile that most communities don’t have."

"All of this attention has generated a lot more recognition from advocacy groups that are based in Washington … who are attempting to influence how Congress approaches immigration."

That attention has added another obstacle and layer of complexity towards how Herndon is run, he added.

Advocacy groups "view Herndon as an opportunity to get publicity for their viewpoints and their agendas," Mills said. "I think it does a disservice to all the residents of Herndon as [advocacy groups] try and dictate policy based around their agenda that governs the lives of local residents."

WHILE MILLS DID not discount the interest of Project Hope & Harmony in Herndon and immigration policy, he said that there have been several nationally-active organizations on both sides of the immigration debate, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), who have been involved in local Herndon politics and events.

"We try and get involved wherever we can where there is interest in illegal immigration reform," said Sandra Gunn, eastern field representative for FAIR, who spoke to the Town Council during an Oct. 10 public hearing advocating more local restrictions to verify worker status of town contractor crews. "What we see in Herndon is people who obviously felt so strongly about illegal immigration that it influenced the town election … and we are interested in becoming involved in these localities, especially those who have grown impatient with the pace of the federal government."

But the involvement of FAIR has stopped with advocacy, Gunn said. Earlier this year, the Town of Herndon declined an offer from FAIR for official assistance in formulating policy that is "lawful and effective" in dealing with illegal immigration on a local level, she said, adding that FAIR regularly gets requests from residents and municipalities throughout the country for advice.

INVOLVEMENT OF advocacy groups is nothing new to Herndon. FAIR has dispatched representatives to speak to the Town Council about illegal immigration as far back as September of 2003, according to town records.

In the run up to the May election, several organizations manifested themselves in Herndon, ranging from grass-roots organizations of area residents to nationally-recognized groups pushing federal agendas.

Since the announcement of the results, Help Save Herndon, one of the organizations that has frequently cited itself as being key to the victory of a slate of candidates largely opposed to the town’s controversial day labor site, has grown to include a Help Save Loudoun (County) chapter.

Herndon has also been the site of national attention of the non-advocate kind when Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, filed a suit against the Town of Herndon and Fairfax County to shut down the local day labor site, on behalf of town and county residents.

This involvement, according to Jill Farrell, public affairs director for Washington, D.C.-based Judicial Watch, has been focused solely on advocating enforcement of laws as opposed to a broader national political agenda.

"We don’t lobby on political issues, we’re not policy advocates, that’s up to political action groups," Farrell said. "The law is the law and whether they be state, federal or local laws, we want them to be enforced."

THE PROBLEM WITH this much involvement from national advocacy groups is a greater possibility for Herndon to stray from local issues to ones that are primarily based around a national agenda, Mills said.

"It has become even more difficult for issues that affect the general public of Herndon to be addressed effectively," he said. "The community becomes even more polarized and we could start losing track of what we’re here for."

It’s exactly that consequence that the Town Council must be aware of and guard against, said Herndon Town Council member Bill Tirrell.

"There are always outside groups … on both sides of the aisle, and it must be my perspective to keep in mind what’s best for the town," Tirrell said. "There has been a lot of talk about outside influence and these groups will regularly voice their opinions, and that’s important."

Tirrell added that to his knowledge, the only "outside group" to meet with the Town Council has been officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement about a possible deal to train local police to initiate deportation proceedings against violent criminals found to be in the country illegally.

While they may not officially and directly influence decisions, the input of all citizens and groups, regardless of their national status is valued and wanted in Herndon, according to council member Connie Hutchinson.

"If anything [advocacy group participation] has just opened us up to more input, not only from citizens but from all interested parties," she said. "I think that the advocacy groups regularly deal with some of the same problems confront Herndon, and I welcome that input."

But this input, she said, will stop with the Herndon residents.

"We’re going to do what is in our best interest as a town," Hutchinson said. "We are definitely not going to just go out there and do what some advocacy group is preaching."

SOME WANT the apparent strategy to use Herndon as a loudspeaker against immigration to go away.

Council member Harlon Reece said that the advocacy organizations have not had a "direct" influence on the Town Council, and that he would prefer it if all of the national attention over immigration in Herndon would disappear.

"Many communities grapple with these problems and I can’t understand why these national … and even regional organizations have latched on so firmly to Herndon," Reece said, adding that the town has received mail from people all over the world. "People throughout the country are watching what’s going on in Herndon and I don’t know if necessarily that is a good thing."

Despite all of the attention and publicity brought to Herndon in recent years, Mills said that he is grateful that Herndon has still maintained the ability to work in a civil and cooperative manner with local issues.

"Although there’s all of this hostility on the national stage I think that among neighbors in Herndon, there’s been a very different story of how we see the day labor issue," he said. "Yes, there’s been vigorous debate about day labor, but for the most part the community has carried on and we continue to work together to find the solutions that work best for us."

"Those solutions, and not what the advocacy groups preach, is what need to come out of Herndon."