Local Labor Pains
America's immigration debate lands on Main Street
Ground zero in the battle over immigration this summer wasn't on Capitol Hill but 25 miles away in the 23,000-person Virginia suburb of Herndon. Seven years of police calls and traffic problems were enough for city fathers. They needed a fix for Herndon's eyesore, the parking lot of the local 7-Eleven where every day a horde of day laborers gathered to meet up with prospective employers--usually construction managers or landscapers looking for cheap labor. The proposed solution is a taxpayer-funded day-labor center--a shelter, trailer, and restrooms--on the edge of town where employers could hire workers each morning in an organized manner. As envisioned, the $170,000 center would also provide training and English classes for the mostly Central American workers, many of them probably illegal aliens.
Herndon officials figured they'd provoke some debate, but what they got was nothing short of stunning. A radio talk-show host in Sacramento lambasted the proposal, telling listeners to flood Herndon's switchboard with calls; the town's system was down for four days. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and leading advocate of immigration restrictions, railed against the idea. Republican Jerry Kilgore, in the thick of the Virginia governor's race, threw his support to protesters. A conservative legal group sued to block the center. The public hearing on the proposal, scheduled for one night, lasted two; 150 residents, nearly evenly split on the plan, took to the microphone.
"This issue of day laborers in Herndon is a local problem. The people of Herndon must solve it," said Bill Perry at the hearing. Countered Douglas Roach: "The bottom line is we have a problem with illegal immigration. We don't need to aid it or abet it. We need to uphold the laws."
Over the past year, battles like the one in Herndon, which finally approved the center, have been waged from Laguna Beach, Calif., to Jupiter, Fla. Day-labor centers have become a flashpoint in the broader struggle to overhaul the nation's immigration system. As the federal government stumbles in that challenge, local officials find themselves forced to develop their own piecemeal solutions.
"We've been given an unfair burden by a lack of a federal policy," says Herndon Mayor Michael O'Reilly.
Public face. Once prevalent only in heavily immigrant communities like Los Angeles, day-labor sites have sprung up all over, thanks to a skyrocketing illegal immigrant population now estimated at more than 10 million and a building boom--fueled in part by low wages. "The day workers have become the public face of immigration," says Pablo Alvarado of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Experts say that over the past five years, centers like the one proposed in Herndon have increasingly been seen as a way to bring at least a semblance of order to a chaotic situation. More than 350 day-labor sites now exist nationwide, including 63 formal centers like what's envisioned in Herndon, says Nik Theodore, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
The informal gathering sites continue to create controversy nationwide. Some of them have cropped up near home-improvement stores like Home Depot. In California, a group called Save Our State has protested at Home Depots, alleging the company has promoted illegal immigration. A Los Angeles councilman has even proposed an ordinance that would require new home-improvement stores to set up shelters for day laborers. David Sandor, a Home Depot spokesman, says the firm has a "no solicitation" policy that prohibits groups from assembling on its property but contends that the day-laborer issue is symptomatic of larger problems that must be addressed by the federal government.
Several major proposals to reform immigration laws or toughen border security await action in Congress, either later this year or early next year; in addition, President Bush may soon release his own guest-worker proposal. But until something happens in Washington, the immigration wars will continue to be fought around Main Street convenience stores and parking lots.
This story appears in the October 24, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.