- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2005

Herndon officials, looking to address complaints about day laborers loitering on city streets, are expected to decide tonight whether building a shelter for the immigrant workers might solve more problems than it creates.

Neighborhoods in Virginia, Maryland and the District have problems with day laborers, many of them illegal aliens, who loiter in parking lots in search of day-to-day work. Residents and shop owners complain that the men litter, urinate in public and harass women.

“These people are absolute nuisances,” said Avis Nia, owner of a gas station in Herndon where day laborers gather.

Mr. Nia said the men have destroyed his lawn, embarrassed female customers with catcalls, flushed muddy boots in his restroom toilet and rushed his customers as they drove into his lot.

Officials and nonprofit groups in Shirlington, Takoma Park and Silver Spring have dealt with such complaints by creating centers, some of them funded with taxpayer money, to get the men off the street. Most of them are hired for cash to do construction jobs or household manual labor.

Centers are slated to open in Wheaton and Gaithersburg, and Baltimore City Council has passed a resolution for opening a center.

Herndon officials are deciding whether to follow suit.

Virginia Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter said the federal government is responsible for fixing the day-labor issue, so no state taxpayer dollars should be used to address the problem.

“Congress must act, and localities and the state must not worsen the problem by winking at the problem and throwing money at it,” the Prince William County Republican said. “It is completely unjustified and completely inappropriate to spend the taxpayers’ money on people who, while they may work hard, are not here playing by the rules.”

Montgomery County officials in February approved $130,000 in funding to build a day-labor center in Wheaton. The center’s daily operations will be contracted through CASA of Maryland Inc., which operates similar centers in Takoma Park and Silver Spring.

The county provides more than $1 million in support of CASA’s programs and services and will contribute more money to the new center, officials said.

Kim Propeack, the organizing and advocacy director for CASA, said most day laborers are in the country legally. She said formal centers allow workers to establish voluntary codes of conduct and rules for operation.

Each center is run differently, but generally the workers establish a set wage and create a lottery system that encourages them to stop swarming cars to be chosen for a job.

Formal centers have improved the day-labor situation in some cases, but the process has been slow in Shirlington, said Capt. Paul Larson of the Arlington County Police Department.

“It has improved over time since the site was moved, and the neighbors are complaining less, but the business community is now complaining,” he said.

Capt. Larson said employees of public television station WETA, which is next to the public pavilion built for day laborers, often complain about harassment and traffic problems.

Complaints about drinking and littering have decreased since the site was established, Capt. Larson said. The center is monitored by Shirlington volunteers.

Andres Tobar, who helped open the Shirlington center, acknowledged the challenges.

“The problems are not something that will just go away. It’s better organized than it was before,” said Mr. Tobar, an immigrant advocate. “It’s not a silver-bullet situation, but it’s a good step to bring in order to a situation where you have folks hanging at a particular site.”

Communities across the region are debating whether to spend taxpayer funds on day-labor centers.

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors this year unanimously decided not to use county funds to open a center, and forwarded a report about day laborers to their congressional representatives.

County police last year conducted a raid and arrested several dozen day laborers in Manassas on charges of loitering that carried a $100 fine. The charges were dropped.

A survey of police departments in the region showed that officers receive many complaints about day laborers but rarely file charges or make arrests.

In Herndon, a group of community leaders and churches called Project Hope and Harmony have filed for a conditional-use permit to establish a day-labor center to replace the site where dozens of men gather at a 7-Eleven store.

The proposal, which the Planning Commission will hear tonight, calls for opening a day-labor center in a trailer next to the police station. The police have outgrown the site and will move this month.

“The idea is to get these gentlemen off the street corner and into an orderly, safe location,” said Elizabeth Hagg, the town’s director of neighborhood resources.

Fairfax County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said the county has set aside up to $400,000 of its $3 billion annual budget that officials may grant among several centers for day laborers.

It is not known how much grant money Herndon will receive because the county is still reviewing grant proposals, she said. Groups in Culmore and Annandale also have applied for the grant.

The day-labor center issue has divided the 22,000-population town of Herndon.

Business owner Ray Brar said he thinks a formal center would reduce the trash and drunken brawls behind his gas station.

Others living near the proposed site worry that such a center would reduce property values and increase crime.

“I understand that these are people who are trying to do the best for their families, but I wouldn’t want 150 out-of-work men moving anywhere regardless of race, creed or age because out of the 150, you’re going to find crime or those who don’t have the best intentions,” said Therese Chesnutt, a registered nurse and mother of two who lives down the street from the center’s proposed site.

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