Day Laborers Rally in Virginia

Over two hundred day laborers and union organizers from across the country convened in the D.C. suburb of Herndon, Va., last Friday to protest renewed efforts by town council members to shut down an official hiring site where undocumented workers currently congregate to solicit employment. The Herndon Official Worker Center has been open since 2005, when the town council voted 5-2 to spend $175,000 in taypayer dollars to operate it. But last year, new council members were elected on a platform opposing the center, claiming that the current operator's failure to check the immigration status of day laborers is contributing to the perception of Herndon as a lawless haven for undocumented workers.

On August 14, the town council will either renew the center's permit or, as many believe, vote to dismantle it. A third option is also on the table -- a bid from a potential new operator who would require workers to reveal their immigration status. Ending the center's "don't ask, don't tell" policy would have the same effect as closing the facility, sending undocumented immigrants back to street corners and home improvement stores where they will be forced to negotiate their own jobs.

Friday's rally was scheduled to coincide with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON)'s annual conference, which drew activists from across the country to Capitol Hill last Thursday. They lobbied for a moratorium on worksite raids and condemned the devolution of power to state and local governments, which has occurred in the absence of federal immigration reform. Many of these activists joined day laborers in Herndon on Friday to protest what they claim is an attempt by local lawmakers to expel undocumented workers from the community.

On any given day, 117,600 workers across the country are either employed as day laborers or actively seek employment in this informal and almost entirely unregulated sector, according to the 2006 National Day Labor Study. Although the vast majority of these individuals solicit employment at unofficial venues such as gas stations, businesses, and sidewalks, one in five search for work at a growing number of authorized day labor centers. Ranging in sophistication from open-air picnic tables to fully staffed buildings, sites like the Herndon Official Worker Center offer day laborers "a safe and dignified place in which to look for employment," NDLON staff attorney Marissa Nuncio explained.

NDLON has patched together a seemingly incongruous coalition of labor unions, immigrants' rights activists, and nativist groups, which despite ideological differences have acknowledged their shared interest in getting undocumented laborers away from street corners and off to work. In Herndon, where 38 percent of the 22,000 residents are foreign-born, local unions and undocumented day laborers have forged a mutually beneficial alliance. Hugo Carballo, president and business manager of Laborers’ Local 11, estimated that Latino and immigrant workers comprise 80 percent of the union’s membership. Although some of these are undocumented, Local 11 does not require workers to reveal their citizenship status. "We never ask for papers. Our goal is to organize as many people as possible, whether they're legal or not," Carballo said, adding that Local 11 provides resources to help its members navigate the naturalization process.

Carballo believes that Herndon's hiring center and others across the country are necessary satellites of enforcement in an informal economy that too often puts day laborers at the mercy of employers. In March, The New York Times editorialized on the virtues of official hiring sites, which "impose order on free-market chaos." In the absence of regulatory mechanisms, exploitation and abuse run rampant in the vast network of informal exchanges that comprise the day labor sector. The National Day Labor Study found that almost half of all day laborers had experienced at least one instance of wage theft in the two months prior to being surveyed, and 44 percent were denied food and water breaks while on the job.

But when the hiring process is mediated by a third party, wage levels and working conditions are subject to the moderating influence of external scrutiny. According to Bill Threlkeld, who operates the Herndon Official Worker Center, "Nonpayment by employers who use the center is statistically negligible." Volunteers offer English classes daily at the site, giving foreign-born day laborers the ability to negotiate directly with their employers. The center also informs workers of their right to legal recourse in the event of misconduct by employers. Even though the "official" center consists of little more than a collapsible tent, the perception of institutional oversight goes a long way toward ensuring that contracts are carried out, and payment distributed to the scores of day laborers who congregate at the lot every morning.

Robert Toatley, who passes by the 7-Eleven parking lot on his daily commute to work, said that the presence of a growing undocumented population is impossible to ignore. Toatley has tapped into this abundant and reliable labor supply, routinely hiring day laborers to do yard work and odd jobs around his home. But many of his neighbors are less inclined to hire undocumented workers, who are unfairly characterized as criminals -- despite the Day Labor Study's conclusion that these workers are more frequently the victims of crime. Toatley said he favors any center that helps day laborers find an honest source of income, so that they don't resort to illegal activities. "There's always an incentive to put a dollar in someone's pocket if it keeps him from doing something desperate."

Although public officials have portrayed the center as a drain on taxpayers, Herndon residents who encountered the demonstrators on Friday were overwhelming supportive, and at the very least indifferent, to their plight. As the crowd -- sporting day-glo armbands, union logos, and framed portraits of El Salvador's martyred archbishop and champion of human rights, Óscar Arnulfo Romero -- passed through a subdued Suburban neighborhood, onlookers emerged from their homes to photograph the march. The Spanish anthem "We will not be moved" echoed down Elden Street as drivers rolled down car windows to pump their fists in support. Nuncio, the NDLON staff attorney, said that opposition to the center is for the most part "being driven by the conservative town council and not by the residents themselves."

Although many residents have expressed their support for the day laborers, Herndon officials remain committed to driving them out of town -- and they have the ability to do so by enforcing an anti-solicitation ordinance that prohibits day workers from seeking employment anywhere but the designated 7-Eleven parking lot. The law was passed several weeks before the opening of the center in 2005, and public officials maintain that the existence of an official hiring site allows them to bar solicitation on the streets.

But the constitutionality of similar ordinances has been called into question in California and New York, where residents have invoked the First and Fourteenth amendments in defense of solicitation. Last May, a federal judge ruled in California that day laborers in Redondo Beach had the right to look for jobs on public sidewalks. And last November, a court censured officials in the New York City suburb of Mamaroneck for condoning racial profiling and harassment of day laborers in an effort to discourage them from seeking work.

Herndon, too, is facing a legal challenge directed at its anti-solicitation ordinance, filed by a resident of nearby Reston who was ticketed by police for hiring a day laborer in the 7-Eleven parking lot. The town awaits a ruling from a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge. Based on the precedents in Redondo Beach and Mamaroneck -- towns which did not have authorized hiring sites -- Herndon officials believe that the presence of an official worker center gives them license to crack down on immigrants who solicit work elsewhere.

Ironically, the conservative board of supervisors in the neighboring county of Loudoun is considering a permit for a similar worker center, for the sole purpose of shielding a harsh anti-solicitation ordinance from potential legal challenges. Supervisors Scott K York (I) and Stephen J Snow (R) said last week that confining the day labor market to a limited zone would make it easier for officials to monitor and contain the activities of undocumented workers found loitering in unauthorized areas. If Herndon closes its center, undocumented workers are likely to spill over into nearby Loudoun County -- an outcome that supervisors York and Snow are hoping to forestall by introducing a thoroughly inhospitable ordinance that would criminalize solicitation outside of a designated hiring site. The unfortunate consequence of this political maneuvering is that labor centers, originally conceived to protect undocumented workers, are being appropriated by their conservative antagonists as weapons against them.

Activists and lawmakers on either side of the issue must acknowledge that the likely closure of the Herndon Official Worker Center will have clear ramifications for the hundreds of day laborers who seek work there everyday. Carballo predicted that police will step up efforts to intimidate and arrest day laborers when they are forced to gather on street corners in the absence of an authorized hiring site. But a heightened police presence is not likely to dampen the resolve of day laborers, who will simply migrate to neighboring towns if Herndon's hostile policies prevent them from earning a living.

The necessity of finding work is compounded by the strong sense of obligation that many day laborers feel toward their families, both in the United States and in their countries of origin. The National Day Labor Study found that two-thirds of day laborers have children, and 28 percent of these children are U.S. citizens. "Your stomach is bigger than any of the risks. When your kid is hungry, you go back out there and look for work," Carballo said.

Undocumented day laborers will remain fixtures on busy streets until Congress acknowledges their presence by implementing comprehensive immigration reform. In the meantime, towns like Herndon will continue to enact ill-conceived policies that simply displace workers from one corner onto another.