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Town Seeks to Change Labor Site

New site would require work authorization checks.

The Town of Herndon has informed Reston Interfaith, the faith-based non-profit organization that operates the town's controversial day labor site, that it has begun the process of seeking an alternative site and operator.

Aside from a change in location, a new operator would run the site like a private employment agency, requiring workers to fill out federally-regulated paperwork and provide legal work authorization in the United Sates, according to Herndon Town Manager Steve Owen. The current day labor site, the Herndon Official Workers' Center located on Sterling Road, does not require workers to show proof of employment status in the United States.

Owen informed Reston Interfaith of the decision earlier this month after Mayor Steve DeBenedittis and other members of the Town Council requested the search for the new location and operator, according to town officials.

"During the campaign we heard from a lot of people who were concerned about the site and now we're going out to look at all of our options," said DeBenedittis, who noted that a change in operation was in no way assured. "I think that people are welcoming to others in our community, but we also want to make sure that the law is followed."

WHILE ELIMINATION of the current site will more than likely take time, local officials would only need to give site operators a 30 day notice to vacate the location under a licensing agreement with the town, according to Herndon Official Workers' Center director Bill Threlkeld.

"From a technical standpoint, it's very easy to require us to vacate the site," Threlkeld said. "But from a practical and political standpoint ... it would take more time to find a viable alternative."

The site sees an average of 153 workers registering for work each day, with a hiring rate ranging between 22 and 30 percent from May to September of this year, according to figures released by the workers' center.

The action by the mayor and some council members to begin the search for an alternative site is the first direct move made by officials regarding the site since taking office in July, and the latest in a string of council actions that target illegal immigration. DeBenedittis and several council members swept into office by advocating a strong stance against the establishment of the site and illegal immigration.

Opponents of the day labor site have said that it encourages illegal immigration and attracts the laborers to the town and surrounding areas.

COUNCIL MEMBER Harlon Reece, the only remaining council member who had expressed support for the decision to establish the site, said that he is concerned any changes to the fundamental operations of the site will be counterproductive. He added that he was the only council member to not request that Owen begin a search for an alternative site operator.

Reece noted that the original goal of establishing the day labor site was to clean up the large number of workers from gathering to solicit work on private property throughout town. A site that requires identification, he added, might not work to eliminate the problem of street solicitations and may cut into the ability of the police from enforcing an ordinance barring such solicitations.

"I have some very serious reservations about doing this," Reece said. "Our main reason for [establishing the site] was to eliminate a very dangerous and chaotic public safety issue on Elden Street."

"I'm not convinced that if there is a site that would require verification of ... worker eligibility status that it would be effective in controlling this issue."

Opening up a site that worked as a center for day laborers but checked for legal work authorization would not cause a return to the previous problems, said council member Bill Tirrell.

The message sent to illegal immigrants from the Town of Herndon may even cause them to leave town, he added.

"Maybe they'll go find somewhere else that will be tolerant of their illegal alien status," Tirrell said.

While no research had been done by town staff to determine just how many workers would be affected by a change that would require workers to show permits, DeBenedittis said that he felt that the local ordinance prohibiting open street solicitations would still be reasonably enforceable by police.

Calls placed to Herndon Chief of Police Toussaint Summers were not returned at time of publication.

THE APPARENT SUCCESS of the site to end much of the illegal work solicitations on private property is a testament to the success of the site and is reason to continue its current operations, said Kerrie Wilson, director of Reston Interfaith.

"I think you would have a hard time finding someone who can truthfully say that the situation at the 7-Eleven and along Elden Street hasn't improved since the workers' center was established," Wilson said. She added that the site also provides other resources for workers, such as English classes and information about attaining legal work authorization.

While not specifically saying whether or not a site requiring worker verification would be as effective in combating this problem, Wilson said that it would require more resources and training than the current site is equipped for. She added that it is the role of the federal government, and not a non-profit, to deal with immigration.

The possibility that individual emotions and anger over illegal immigration would supersede what is needed to improve the quality of life in Herndon on a local level is one that must be watched carefully, Reece said.

"I can understand why people might be angry over illegal immigration, but it is my first responsibility to address the problems of this town in a practical manner," he said. "I think the frustration of having so illegal immigrants in the country and in Herndon might cloud our view of what is practical for our town."

Reece recalled the scene of dozens of laborers swarming cars in commercial parking lots along Elden Street as a reason to be cautious in approaching any change to the operation of a day labor site in Herndon.

"I'm afraid that we're getting ready to take a big step backwards," he said.