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Town to Staff Labor Site

Herndon plans to pay for labor site that checks authorization status in absence of independent operator.

Herndon is drawing up plans for municipal employees to staff the town’s day labor site on an interim basis ahead of what appears to be an imminent withdrawal of its current operator.

Project Hope & Harmony expects a Sept. 14 end date for its role at the Herndon Official Workers Center. The county-funded operation has served day laborers for a little less than two years.

There has been no meeting between the county and town to discuss the reinstatement of labor site funding, terminated by the county earlier this month, according to Fairfax County and Herndon officials.

"I’m presuming that if there is no meeting, there is no resumption of funding," said Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope & Harmony. "So the date of Sept. 6 [for the elimination of funding] is pretty much it. We’ve put in our 30-day notice and we are looking at our last day being Sept. 14."

Talk of those meetings between town and county officials in recent weeks have disintegrated as a result of a lack of Town Council support and a number of opinions expressed from Herndon residents in recent weeks, according to Fairfax County Supervisor Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville).

"We’ve attempted to work with the Town Council several times over the last several weeks to find a way to manage this issue by getting workers off of private property and main streets," DuBois said. "But the large amount of e-mails and contacts that I’m getting are from people that feel just the opposite. They don’t want anything done … that will have anything to do with illegal aliens."

THE TOWN WILL continue to operate a site at its current location at the former police station at 1481 Sterling Road with town funding and staff members who will have instructions to check for worker authorization status of any of its users until a new operator is found, approved and established, according to Vice Mayor Dennis Husch.

That will mean approximately $6,000 of town funding a month to the site, according to Husch. Under the former agreement with the county and Project Hope & Harmony, the town only provided the permission to use the site and did not fund its operation.

"The town has the legal authority to establish market places. Market places for ideas, market places for sports, market places for lots of things," Husch said. "And we’re going to potentially establish a market place for employment for those who are in the country legally."

The town hoped for Reston Interfaith to be able to continue its operations until a new operator could be found for the site that would check users' work authorization status but the lack of funding has all but eliminated that possibility, according to Mayor Steve DeBenedittis.

"Rather than knee jerk and close the site down right away, we've tried to come upon a way where we can have a smooth and orderly transition," DeBenedittis said. "But in the event that we cannot have the original operator until that time, we are prepared to do what is needed to eliminate informal gathering sites from appearing in town."

THE QUESTION that has loomed over the current site’s shutdown lies in what will happen with the more than 100 workers that gather at the site on average every day. As many as 85 percent of those workers would be unable to use a site that requires legal U.S. residency identification, according to county surveys of day laborers in the region.

While some workers have expressed that they will look to relocate out of the area, a majority have expressed a desire to stay in Herndon and have stated that they will return to the streets, according to Threlkeld. That would violate a local ordinance prohibiting informal street solicitations passed in conjunction with the original site.

"I think probably some of the workers will say, ‘this is just not worth it' and move on," he said. "But a number of the workers, they have a connection to the community through their family and friends over several years, and that is not an easy thing for anyone to give up."

"Despite this whole process, these workers still feel a part of this community."

The local police will be citing anyone who attempts to find work on the streets, according to Husch.

"Those who are not here legally will not be serviced [at the town-staffed site] and if they attempt to solicit work on the street, they will be cited by police," he said. "It’s going to be impossible for them to work. All the hype from Reston Interfaith and Project Hope & Harmony [about workers returning to streets] is just nonsense."

THE TOWN’S anti-solicitation ordinance will be put to the test as more workers are cited if they return to soliciting work in the streets as they had before the site was created, Threlkeld said.

Day labor advocacy groups, such as the Los Angeles-based National Day Labor Organizing Network, have stated that anti-solicitation ordinances like Herndon’s violate workers’ constitutional rights to free speech. The group has had at least two ordinances similar to Herndon’s overturned in federal court in the last three years on constitutional grounds.

To Husch, the town’s actions are more about denying services to illegal immigrants than they are about limiting freedom of speech.

"Where in the Constitution of the United States of America does it say that you have to spend public funds to find employment for illegal aliens? Where does it say in the Constitution that illegal aliens have any rights?" Husch said. "We’ve established a soap box for free speech and that free speech soap box is … at the old police station, and anyone who wants to exercise America’s free speech rights can go there."

Threlkeld called the decision to stop anyone without proper identification from soliciting work in an orderly manner in the town "misguided policy" and will result in "chaotic" conditions.

"I think that most of the community doesn’t want a situation that we had before with workers back on the streets," he said. "But the Town Council is elected and they say they are in touch with what the people want, so this is how they have decided to go about this."