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Immigration Issues Drove Political Change

Historic local elections underline importance of illegal immigration on residents' minds.Historic local elections underline importance of illegal immigration on residents' minds.

With the entrance of 2006 came a debate over local concerns associated with illegal immigration. It would be an issue that would take center stage in Herndon politics throughout the year.

In the closing days of 2005 a taxpayer-funded day labor site was established in the town to lessen the swelling number of migrant workers lining up in parking lots as they solicited for jobs. The result was a deluge of protests and counter protests that would roll over into 2006, as the town's mayor and members of Herndon's Town Council would seek reelection in May.

"It was clear to many residents at the very start of this election that it would be about immigration," said Mike O'Reilly, the incumbent mayor and a proponent of the establishment of the site. "I think people were still struggling with illegal immigration and there was that kind of national attention focused on that issue leading up to our local election."

With O'Reilly in support of the site's establishment stood former mayor and incumbent council member Carol Bruce, sitting council members Steve Mitchell and Harlon Reece and local Hispanic businessman Jorge Rochac.

From the lines of detractors speaking against the day labor site at the town's initial hearings on the matter came political newcomer Steve DeBenedittis, vying for a spot as Herndon's mayor. With him were incumbent council member Dennis Husch, former council members Connie Hutchinson and Bill Tirrell, and town residents Dave Kirby and Charlie Waddell.

A number of residents, feeling they had a large stake in the outcome of the elections joined in locally-established grass-roots organizations, such as the anti-day labor site group, Help Save Herndon and those who supported it, Herndon Embraces All with Respect and Tolerance (HEART).

A number of political rallies took place in Herndon and a spotlight was drawn to the town by major media representatives like Lou Dobbs, calling the elections a microcosm for national sentiment on immigration reform.

ON ELECTION DAY, thousands of residents showed up to polls to make their voices heard. They were greeted with news network cameras and a bevy of journalists looking to capture the national moment from a local level.

DeBenedittis and his informal slate of candidates who rallied against the decision to establish the day labor site just six months earlier swept the incumbents and day labor supporters from office. The only remaining candidate to support the site, Harlon Reece, regained his seat as council member.

"I think the people wanted a change and the elections reflected that," said Hutchinson in a December phone interview. "There were a lot of different things that played into this election, but primarily it was about pointing Herndon in a new direction."

For O'Reilly, the results came as an off-shoot of the growing frustration with national immigration reform projected in a local election.

"There was this perception that was formed that we were in some way promoting illegal immigration ... and it played a large part in this election," he said. "I was disappointed with the people who did not take the time to understand the issue on a broader level."

It was the throngs of people who showed up to voice their opposition to the day labor site who felt ignored after its approval that swung the election, Tirrell said.

"Quite frankly, the folks who were then in office didn't listen to the folks who were outside of their immediate circle," on the day labor site, he said. "The residents felt like they weren't listened to."

WHEN THE MAYOR and new Town Council members took office in July, they delivered true on their message to take a firm stance from a local perspective on illegal immigration.

In September, the council revisited the possibility of sending members of the Herndon Police Department to be trained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) duties which would allow them to initiate deportation procedures on serious criminals in the country illegally.

Following the publicized debate, the mayor and council approved the decision to seek the ICE training, passing it along to town staff to draft a proposal for the training.

Subsequent measures designed to toughen punishments for residential overcrowding — cited by many as a side effect of illegal immigration — were introduced to the town in the fall.

AS THE FIRST YEAR of Herndon's new council came to a close, the annual state legislative program suggested by the town came in the form of a "get tough on immigration" bill.

If the program, which is still being reviewed by state representatives, is approved, day labor sites like the one in Herndon that do not check for worker citizenship status would be forced to change policies or shut down.

Several members of the town council will continue to battle illegal immigration in the town as their term enters its second calendar year, Tirrell said. He noted the ordinances that increased overcrowding punishments and the plan to find a new day labor site operator that would check for identification as just the first measures in many to be made.

"From my perspective, we're doing what we can to discourage the presence of illegal aliens in town," he said. "We're not trying to be the federal government, but we're doing our best to stop [illegal immigration] in Herndon."

"These people are present in this country illegally, and we don't want them in Herndon, plain and simple."