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A Virginia Town's War on Immigrant Laborers

Hate and Hope in Herndon

by ZACH MASON

The Official Workers Center of Herndon, Virginia closed on September 14th, the day that a conditional use permit expired. The day laborer center had been highly controversial even before its opening in December of 2005. The town council that approved the center had seen it as a way to appease residents who took issue with dozens of immigrant workers congregating at a local 7-11 to wait for pick up by potential employers. Plans for creating a space for day laborers to gather go back to 2003. But as the town council attempted to move forward with its plan to remove the "eyesore" of workers gathering in public, the very right wing residents that the council intended to appease spoke out against funding for the center. "When we put money into a day-labor site, we are putting money into people who are illegal," said one Herndon resident.

In the lead up to the centers’ opening in 2005, the racist vigilante Minutemen, who had previously operated almost exclusively on the US Mexico border, founded a chapter in Herndon. They began by harassing day labors and their potential employers by photographing them.

Although this campaign quickly fizzled, the Minutemen did succeed in establishing a base of activists that pushed the debate in Herndon further to right. In late 2005, the town council passed an ordinance banning solicitation of work in public places. The anti-solicitation ordinance coincided with the opening of the workers center, which became the only place workers could legally congregate. The non-profit organization Project for Hope and Harmony was contracted by the city to operate the center, including providing English classes for workers as well and making arrangements with contractors in need of their labor.

Within months of the centers’ opening, right wing sentiment in the town was expressed in a local election where the mayor and four of the six town council members were ousted in favor of candidates who opposed the center. The newly elected council demanded that the operators of the workers center verify the immigration status of all workers using the site. When the Project for Hope and Harmony refused to comply, the council announced its intention to find other ways of operating the center that would involve excluding undocumented workers.

On August 28th, Judge Leslie Alden of the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled that Herndon’s anti-solicitation ordinance was unconstitutional. The 11-page opinion also pointed out that "the fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is not confined to the protection of citizens.". The Fairfax County decision came on the heels of a March 2007 ruling that overturned anti-immigrant laws in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The Hazleton laws targeted undocumented workers from a different angle by penalizing landlords and employers that do business with them. These laws were also found to be unconstitutional.

Meanwhile in Prince William County, VA the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution that would deputize local police as immigration agents and encourage social service providers to deny services to undocumented people. One striking difference in Prince William County is that there has been a defiant and well organized response from the immigrant community. Immigrants and other residents who oppose the racist laws organized a boycott of all businesses in the county that did not bear a poster opposing the resolution. This slowed activity to a trickle at many businesses such as gas stations and fast food restaurants. The week long boycott culminated in a mass demonstration of over 10,000 in the small city of Woodbridge, VA. The reason for this markedly different response is not mysterious. In Prince William County a core of worker activists from Mexicanos Sin Fronteras (MSF) and their supporters have done consistent grassroots organizing within the immigrant community. MSF was founded in Woodbridge in 2000 and now has half a dozen chapters in Maryland and Virginia. They have called for a one day general strike of all immigrant workers and supporters in Prince William County on October 9th if the resolution is not rescinded. As MSF prepares for a potential strike, lawyers are challenging the resolution in court, hoping a Judge will block the County from enforcing the laws. But whatever the judge decides, local immigrant communities have proven to themselves and others that self organizing and not waiting for the salvation of courts is the order of day.

Meanwhile back in nearby Fairfax County, the Herndon Official Workers Center closed its doors for the last time. After locking up the building, workers and organizers marched through town with American flags and placards bearing pro immigrant rights slogans while raising chants like "No more hate in Herndon" and "Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!" The march ended at a small park where, it stopped and a press conference was held announcing the intention of using the park as a space for workers to gather. Since then, workers have based themselves in the small park, signing up each morning on a list for those seeking employment that day. After a few rocky days, the new site is functioning relatively well, with half or more of the workers finding employment on a given day. But the future is far from certain, and the atmosphere remains tense as the anti-immigrant Mayor and Town Council remain in place.

For people fighting for immigrant rights, the way forward is not always clear. The movement will need new strategies and organizations that can only be forged by the determined work of grassroots activists building both in their communities and with larger networks. While the future of the movement may not be certain, the need to carry out a long term ideological battle against anti-immigrant bigotry is crystal clear. The reason why some cities declare sanctuary for undocumented immigrants while other local governments declare virtual war on immigrant communities is that an ideological battle has been fought and won by either the forces of progress or the forces of reaction.