Virginia Town Shutters Day Laborer Center After Judge's Ruling

The town of Herndon will shut down its controversial day laborer center after a judge ruled that the center must be open to all residents, even if they are illegal immigrants.

Mayor Stephen J. DeBenedittis also said Wednesday that the town will not appeal the Aug. 29 ruling by Fairfax County Circuit Judge Leslie Alden.

The day laborer center has been the focus of heated debate since it opened nearly two years ago to provide a more organized alternative for workers who used to flag down potential employers on the town's main thoroughfare. Six months after it opened, voters elected a new mayor and two new council members who opposed the center. Critics said the center encouraged illegal immigrants to come to Herndon.

Last month, the Herndon Town Council voted to keep the center open but to find a new operator that would check the immigration status of the workers who used it.

That plan went out the window with Alden's ruling.

"The viewpoint of the majority of this Council is that a regulated site was necessary only as a means of enforcing the town's anti-solicitation ordinance," DeBenedittis said. "As there is no longer an enforceable ordinance, there is no longer a reason for the town of Herndon to support a regulated day worker site."

The center will close Sept. 14. Deprived of its anti-solicitation ordinance, the town will turn to more stringent enforcement of other regulations, including zoning and traffic ordinances, to keep day laborers off the streets, DeBenedittis said.

Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony, an affiliate of the nonprofit group Reston Interfaith that operated the center for the town, said closing it is a mistake.

"Why would it be smart for a community to have workers spread out over the sidewalk?" he asked.

Alden's decision stemmed from the case of Stephen A. Thomas, who was ticketed for hiring a laborer in the parking lot of a Herndon 7-Eleven. He challenged the law on First Amendment grounds.

A district court found in favor of the town, but Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Leslie Alden ruled for Thomas. She said the worker center was not sufficient to make up for the ban on job solicitation in part because the town intended to bar illegal immigrants from the site. Alden said the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution's equal protection provision applies to noncitizens as well as citizens.