Proposed legislation that could dramatically alter the debate surrounding illegal immigration is eliciting strong reactions in Herndon, where the perceived effects of illegal immigrants have been the focal point of town politics over the last several years.
Drafted by a consortium of Republican and Democrat U.S. senators, the legislation offers a resolution on how to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants believed to be living in the United States.
A provision would allow illegal immigrants a clear path to obtain legal work status and a shot at permanent citizenship if they agree to pay a fine of at least $5,000 and register with the government. It has been one of the most incendiary parts of the bill for citizens who oppose what they call "amnesty" for those who violated U.S. immigration law.
"Anything that rewards lawbreaking is a terrible idea," said Herndon Mayor Steve DeBenedittis, who won a close local election last year running on a platform opposed to illegal immigration in Herndon. "I think that many of the people I’ve spoken with in town over the last year and a half have expressed that feeling as well."
THE OVERRIDING OPINION observed in letters, phone calls and e-mails by U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) who represents the Town of Herndon, has been opposed to the legislation, according to Wolf spokesman Dan Scandling.
Of the more than a thousand e-mails and letters received by Wolf’s office, only a handful have been in support of the legislation, Scandling said.
"What we’re seeing from these people who are writing is that they oppose any kind of amnesty for those who broke the law," he said. As the legislation stands at the moment, Wolf would vote against it, Scandling added.
Moral issues surrounding giving illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship after they bypassed those waiting for legal immigration is just one of the reasons that Herndon resident and director of the Virginia Chapter of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps George Taplin.
"The bottom line is that none of [the legislation] will work because you still haven’t secured our borders," Taplin said. "What’s to stop the illegal flow from coming into the country once this is passed? Nothing."
A provision in the legislation that would require the government to hire 18,000 more border patrol personnel and secure hundreds of miles of fencing to the U.S. border with Mexico doesn’t hold weight with Taplin, who said that the U.S. has broken promises several times in the past to act on similar resolutions.
The legislation would also create a social services and administrative nightmare for U.S. government officials who will be charged with sorting out the needs of the newly-legalized citizens, Taplin added.
"Nothing would change … except that you would now have a big underclass of people with less than a high school education who cannot speak English and you’d still have this flow of illegal aliens into this country," he said. "We don’t need new legislation, we need to enforce the legislation that is currently on the books."
PASSING AN IMMIGRATION reform bill that would allow for a clear pathway to citizenship for those illegal immigrants who have been working diligently for years in the United States is "absolutely urgent," according to Martin Rios, assistant director of Herndon’s day labor site who immigrated to the U.S. from Peru six years ago.
"The whole situation with immigration in this country is broken … and we need to find some way to fix it," Rios said, adding that it was his opinion that the seemingly large number of opponents to the legislation is a very vocal minority in terms of the United States. "We accept that we have people who are not in agreement with the immigrants who want to remove all of the workers, but we also see people everyday … who support our workers."
A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans were in favor of offering illegal immigrants a chance at legalization if they agreed to pay a fine and successfully undergo criminal background checks.
The consistent attack from those opposed to the legislation that it provides amnesty for the illegal immigrants is a fallacy, Rios added.
"When you charge people $5,000 or more, that is not amnesty," he said. "If they have to wait for eight years and pass tests before they can become citizens, that is not amnesty."
Still, Rios said that he was opposed to some of the provisions of the legislation, including one that would eliminate family ties as preferential to visa wait time and substitute it for a system that rates the skills and education level of U.S. worker visa applicants. The supposed ability of the government to efficiently handle the issuance of visas and administer complete background checks in a short period of time also makes Rios skeptical, he added.
WHILE BOTH SIDES expressed frustration over elements of the senate proposal, they shared the same opinion that a noticeable change would not be instantly felt in Herndon.
"Obviously [the reform passing] would take some of the wind out of the sails of those who have opposed the [day labor] site," said Bill Threlkeld, director of the Herndon Official Works Center. "There will be limits to the ideological arguments that we have heard."
"The big sticking point for the [Herndon Town] council and the people who have opposed this site is that we’re not screening documents. But if at some point the illegal workers are all made legal, that would make a lot of that argument moot."
If the workers in Herndon all have legal workers status, there would be less opposition to strict immigration enforcement of those still left in the country illegally and the day labor site would no longer be needed as it stands, but there would be no other major visible effects, Taplin said.
"The only immediate change [if the legislation is passed] would be that people will be sticking around until this amnesty is in effect and you’d have more people coming," he said. "Nothing is going to change until the border is first secure."
Threlkeld still sees a need for some type of day labor site in the town, regardless of the citizenship status of the town’s day labor population.
"You’ll still have corners and you’ll still have centers all over the country … where people will need to wait for work if they need it," Threlkeld said. "They still need places to gather and connect with employers, and citizenship status wouldn’t change that."