Laborers, Loitering And Land Use: Why Local Government Cannot Handle Immigration

[Recently by Carl F. Horowitz: Housing `Shortages`: The Immigration Dimension]

“All politics is local.” Yet in real life the reverse also is true, especially in an environment where opposing Third World mass immigration can brand someone as a hatemonger. Almost any local event, however seemingly insignificant, has the capacity to burst into national prominence.

In the Fairfax County, Va. suburban town of Herndon, with a current estimated population of around 22,000, 38 percent foreign-born, this has come to pass. I can say I saw it happening years ago.

Before Wachovia Bank built a branch within walking distance of my home in Ashburn (Loudoun County), Va., I often would do my banking in Herndon. Each time I parked my car at the bank, without fail, about two to four dozen Hispanic men would be milling about across the street, right next to the 7-Eleven convenience store. Sometimes they would accost motorists and pedestrians. Often, they would litter the area.

Nobody knew how to deal with them. Herndon had no anti-loitering ordinance. And even if it did, where were these guys going to be moved? Arlington? Washington, D.C.?

The men congregating at the corner of Elden and Alabama, I learned from a bank teller, were day laborers.” Lacking a steady job, they took whatever work was available that day. They`d wait for hours in the hopes a contractor would drive by and offer them some manual job.

It was common knowledge that many of these laborers were here in the U.S. illegally. Of course, that didn`t seem to bother the contractors who hired them—the workers` lack of legality made them that much easier to exploit. A recent study revealed that nearly 55 percent of day laborers in Fairfax County reported at least one instance in which they either had not been paid for work or had been paid, but less than the agreed amount. [Day Labor Survey, 4.6 [PDF] Fairfax County Department of Systems Management for Human Services, June 2004]

The scene to this day remains unchanged. You can still see large numbers of men hanging around that 7-Eleven. But the political environment is suddenly different. The Hispanic day laborer problem has gone from neighborhood nuisance to local news story to national news story. Indeed, if Congress eventually declines to pass an immigrant amnesty bill, it will be in part because lawmakers heeded a resident outcry emanating from nearby Herndon this summer.

That brings us to those bloody crossroads where land use planning and local politics meet.

There was a town building soon to be vacated by the police department. A coalition of nonprofit organizations, clergy, businesses and ethnic advocates, called Project Hope and Harmony, saw an opportunity. They proposed converting the surplus building into a hiring hall for day laborers. The project would be aided by a $175,000 grant from Fairfax County, which had set aside another $225,000 for similar projects in other communities. “Our goal is to provide a managed environment, which doesn`t exist right now,” said Hope and Harmony spokesman Joel Mills.

That much was true—the environment wasn`t “managed.” But resistance emerged—and from more than one source.

The Herndon Planning Commission had recommended by a 4-3 vote that the Town Council reject the proposal. Commission members and town staff especially differed as to the hours the facility should be kept open.

And Loudoun County officials were highly concerned. The site overlaps the county line. Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman announced the county`s intent to block the project in absence of a rezoning. [Memo, MS Word Document] Irrepressibly outspoken Loudoun County Board Member Eugene Delgaudio, argued, correctly, that even with the site open, illegal immigrants would continue to solicit work elsewhere rather than go through on-premises immigration checks.

Moreover, there were those pesky Herndon residents—not in the mood to have their town become even more of a magnet for illegal day laborers. At an August 16 town meeting, many of them vented their frustrations. About 100 persons took their seats in the council chambers; another 40 to 50 watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV in a nearby room; and a few dozen more gathered on the building`s front steps. Many present inside the chamber spoke out against the proposal.

Meanwhile, the issue had become a nationwide rallying cry for advocates of immigration restriction. Erin Anderson, whose family owns land in southern Arizona, earlier had testified before the Herndon Planning Commission that each night about 3,000 Mexicans illegally passed through the vicinity of the ranch, with more than a few destined for Northern Virginia. She even had the audacity—you go, girl—to state that these illegal immigrants are sources for diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy and HIV.

WMAL-AM (Washington, D.C.) radio talk show hosts Mark Williams and Chris Core on their respective programs appealed to listeners to oppose the proposed site. Core even broadcast one night from outside the council chambers. The Federation for American Immigration Reform likewise argued the center would encourage further illegal immigration.

The mood at the August 16 meeting was so tense that the Town Council decided to hold another session the following evening. There the council approved the measure by 5-2.

But it`s not over. The Washington-based nonprofit legal group, Judicial Watch, announced on September 1 that it had filed suit against the town on behalf of aggrieved citizens.

Loudoun County also plans to challenge on zoning grounds. It has a strong case. Beginning in January, a new Virginia law will take effect, stating,

“No person who is not a United States Citizen or legally present in the United States shall receive state or local public assistance.”

This would seem to negate the $175,000 subsidy from Fairfax County.

The town several weeks ago asked Virginia Attorney General Judy Williams Jagdmann for an opinion as to whether the center could operate as planned. She has yet to respond.

But Jagdmann`s immediate predecessor, Jerry Kilgore, the GOP candidate for governor this November, has requested that Virginia localities not flout state law. His Democratic opponent, incumbent Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine is a supporter of the center. Speaking recently at a bilingual meeting in the Falls Church area, he accused Kilgore of “grandstanding.”

Anyone looking for a preview of the 2006 Congressional elections, here it is.

Herndon is just getting a taste of what people in southern California have experienced for 40 years. There, Mexican and other Hispanic day laborers can be found working the sidewalks and street corners, on occasion swarming around drivers and littering. UCLA`s Abel Valenzuela estimates that as many as 35,000 people are seeking work at hundreds of day-labor sites throughout California.

On a practical level, the options for amenable compromise are limited. Passing an anti-loitering ordinance might not fly. The City of Redondo Beach, several miles south of L.A. International Airport, passed an ordinance barring day laborers from seeking work on its streets, but they defied the ordinance, and continued to solicit. Police cited or arrested nearly 65 workers and seven potential customers. The laborers responded by marching on City Hall, chanting and waving banners. Through their friends at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), they sued the city—and won. Last December U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall temporarily blocked enforcement of the ordinance. The case goes to trial in 2006.

MALDEF also persuaded U.S. District Judge S. James Otero this spring to strike down a similar ordinance in Glendale. Judge Otero argued in his 11-page ruling that the wording “is too vague for the purpose of enforcing the statute.”

On the other hand, Burbank has been chastened by backlash. When Home Depot proposed putting up a store, Burbank city officials issued a building permit on the condition a day-laborer center was included. The resulting fury from residents shocked City Manager Mary J. Alvord. As of this writing, Home Depot is set to open the store in January, but the city is holding off on opening the center.

Still, Los Angeles hasn`t yet gotten this message; the City Council is set to consider a proposal to require all large home-improvement stores to build day-laborer hiring sites.

Across America, local officials are being pressed into a broker role, mediating conflict between residents, businesses, immigration activists (on both sides), and workers. “Every major city, even smaller cities, are struggling with this,” observes Victor Narro, project director at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center. “It`s become a national issue.”

Let us be blunt: Local government does not have the capacity to address this problem. Mass loitering by immigrant day laborers is a direct result of policies that Congress, the courts, and successive presidential administrations have put into place—and refuse to rectify.

“Local government doesn`t exist to drive that kind of policy,” said Glendale Police Captain Mark Distaso. “This is something that needs to be dealt with on a federal level.”

Will somebody in Washington deal with it already?

Coda: This August 15, a Fairfax County, Va. contractor, Hak Bong Kim, 55, a Korean immigrant, was found murdered, his body badly burned, in a wooded area. Footage from a surveillance camera video at a local 7-Eleven store helped lead to an arrest two weeks later. Police took into custody Carlos Bustamente-Medieta, 29, a Honduran day laborer who lives in Annandale, Va.

Carl F. Horowitz (send him email) is a director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project at the National Legal and Policy Center in Falls Church, Va. has a Ph.D. in urban planning and policy development and has taught planning at Virginia Tech.