Thursday, August 18, 2005

The staff at a newly approved day laborer center in Herndon will not check the immigration status of the workers who use the facility, town officials said yesterday.

Herndon Mayor Michael O’Reilly, a proponent of the center, said organizers who sought the town’s approval for establishing such a center told officials it was not their job to check the workers’ legal status.

“The applicant said it was not their job and that they didn’t have the capacity to enforce federal immigration law,” Mr. O’Reilly said yesterday. “It was clear they will not be checking legal documentation.”

The Town Council Wednesday night voted 5-2 to establish a formal day labor site that would replace the ad hoc site at a local 7-Eleven where workers now gather and cause problems for passers-by and merchants.

The council did not approve spending any taxpayer money for the site.

But, Project Hope and Harmony, a group of churches and community leaders who sought the town’s approval for the center, is seeking a grant from Fairfax County to help pay for the staff that will oversee about 150 laborers. It is not known whether the group will receive any funds from the county.

The council set as a condition for approval a requirement that the center provide all employers a brochure that would state when they must check documentation.

For example, a homeowner looking to hire a worker to mow grass or put up shelves would not be required to check the worker’s legal status. A contractor seeking to hire a laborer for a more permanent job would be required to check documentation, Mr. O’Reilly said.

The council approved the permit for one year. Project Hope and Harmony can ask for three, one-year extensions.

The council approved the center by overruling the Planning Commission, which earlier this month voted 4-3 against recommending the center.

Mr. O’Reilly said the council takes the commission’s votes into consideration, but it is not that unusual for the council to take an opposing view. For example, the Planning Commission recently unanimously recommended for approval a site plan for an office building, but the council later rejected it.

Those who voted in favor of the center were: Mr. O’Reilly, Vice Mayor Darryl C. Smith, and council members Carol A. Bruce, Steven D. Mitchell and Harlon Reece. Council members Ann V. Null and Dennis D. Husch voted against the proposal.

The new center, at 1481 Sterling Road, would provide restrooms and offer day laborers English classes and access to social workers. Day laborers in Herndon include legal immigrants and illegal aliens.

The center could be open as early as Sept. 15.

The council also approved the center over the objections of many residents who do not want taxpayer dollars funding illegal aliens.

Project Hope and Harmony is seeking private donations to run the site in addition to applying for the Fairfax County grant.

The county has set aside $400,000 of its $3 billion annual budget to address the day labor issue in Herndon, Annandale, Culmore and Springfield. County officials have not said how many groups applied for the grants, but did say they are still reviewing applications.

Such use of public money has angered the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Judicial Watch, which is threatening to sue Herndon.

“Essentially no governmental body has the right to use taxpayer funds for illegal purposes,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a nonprofit, public interest law firm. “They are facilitating the illegal hiring of illegal aliens.”

Mr. Fitton said because the day labor center will be housed in a trailer on town property — on the site of a now defunct police station — it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of the center.

However, Project Hope and Harmony volunteers would pay rent for the trailer and its trash bill.

Mike Hethmon, staff counsel for FAIR, said gangs and housing problems with illegal aliens are “creeping anarchy” and are “all symptoms of the same crisis.”

“The issues that Herndon is dealing with are the same issues that folks are dealing with around the rest of the country because of the failure of the present presidential administration to deal with the problem,” he said.

Virginia lawmakers who oppose the center have asked state Attorney General Judith W. Jagdmann, a Republican, to interpret whether Herndon is violating a new state law that denies illegal aliens state and local public benefits. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, requires state and local governments to verify the legal presence of an applicant seeking nonemergency public benefits.

Emily Lucier, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Jagdmann, would not comment on the request, but noted that if a formal opinion were made, it would be released to the public.

Mr. O’Reilly said he doesn’t think the center is violating any code or law. “I have utmost faith in the judicial system to make the determination that our action was justified under current law, both state, local and federal,” he said.

Mr. O’Reilly said the center will be an improvement for the town of 22,000. The day laborers who seek work at the 7-Eleven have prompted complaints of littering, public urination, drunken brawls and harassment of women.

“Absolutely a regulated site has to be better than our current unregulated site,” he said. “Right from the beginning, it will be better and it will give us the opportunity to clean up the site which has been the source of complaints to council members for many years.”

The council will soon approve an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to solicit work anywhere other than at the day labor center.

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