- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

Less than two years after its opening became a flash point in the national debate on immigration, a day-laborer center in Herndon that catered to Hispanic immigrants closed its doors yesterday.

But the day laborers and their supporters said they have a constitutional right to seek work and plan to operate an informal center on the sidewalk outside a town park.

More than 100 people marched about a mile from the now-defunct Herndon Official Workers Center site to the park, waving U.S. flags, chanting in Spanish and holding up signs saying “We are your neighbors” and “Looking for work is not a crime.”

The town opened the center in December 2005 as it sought a way to regulate the number of mostly Hispanic immigrants, including many illegal aliens, who congregated outside a convenience store and elsewhere looking for odd jobs. The center provided a central, organized place for contractors and homeowners to hire laborers under a lottery system, and when it opened the town banned solicitation of work in other locations.

But opponents of the day labor center said it fostered illegal activity by helping people hire illegal aliens. The town voted in a new mayor and council last year opposed to the site. Earlier this month, after a judge struck down the town’s anti-solicitation ordinance and following an unsuccessful effort to find somebody who would run the site and agree to check the workers’ immigration status, Herndon Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis announced plans to close the center.

Bill Threlkeld — a director with Reston Interfaith, the community group that ran the center — said that on average 100 to 120 workers used the site, with about 25 percent finding work on any given day.

But the numbers fluctuated. On its best day, the center sent 143 persons out on jobs. Roughly 70 percent of the people who hired workers were homeowners who needed help with odd jobs or moving furniture, Mr. Threlkeld said. The rest were contractors.

Mr. Threlkeld said the center was a success during its 21 months of operation.

“It will be up to the workers now to step up and provide their own leadership,” he said.

Nery Benitez of Herndon marched yesterday carrying a U.S. flag as well as one from his native Honduras. He said the center provided amenities like a restroom and shelter in cold weather that made job seeking more pleasant.

“They gave us an opportunity to get organized at the day labor center, and now they are closing it,” he said. “I don’t know what they have in their minds.”

Jose Guzman of Reston said he would go to the center on most days looking for work, and would get hired every two or three days. Most of the work was landscaping and mowing, with employers paying up to $15 an hour.

“It was ordered. It was organized. It was a situation where we could all get together and we wouldn’t create a traffic hazard,” he said through an interpreter.

Mr. Guzman said he is now worried that police and town officials opposed to the day laborers will make things difficult for them in the park.

Town spokeswoman Anne Curtis said Herndon recognizes that individuals have the right to solicit work. But she said a formalized, organized day labor site at the park might be an issue the town council would seek to review.

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