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Communities Struggle with Realities of Illegal Immigrants and Day Laborers

A recent Pew Hispanic Center survey found that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has jumped by 25 percent in four years, to about 10.3 million. Immigration is a contentious issue at the national level with lawmakers in Washington arguing about whether increased immigration will help or hurt society. But as VOA News' Brian Padden has learned, illegal immigration is also a divisive issue for local governments trying to deal with the reality of a changing cultural landscape.

They are the workers who build the new homes and trim the shrubs for the legal residents of the town of Herndon, Virginia, located just outside of the nation's capital. And they are mostly illegal immigrants.

Every morning, day laborers, such as Alex Hernandez, gather here at a local convenience store to look for work. He says, "Everyday we are here more than 200 people at the most, 40 people get jobs."

Here it's a buyer's market. A car pulling up in need of only one worker for the day is surrounded by eager applicants.

Franco Torsio says he and the other day workers are filling a labor shortage, not taking jobs from Americans. "The American citizens, the residents don't want to do the difficult jobs. These jobs go to the immigrants. Dangerous work."

But they resent the way they are treated in return, because they are here illegally: no insurance if they get injured, no legal recourse if they don't get paid, and not even a roof over their heads while they wait for work.

Torsio adds, "It is hard to win these things when you don't have documents and we don't have anyone to represent us, or help us. We are here alone."

Some local groups and businesses that want to help the day laborers have been lobbying Herndon officials to use taxpayers' money to build a regulated day laborer site at the edge of town.

Bill Threlkeld, with the group Project Hope and Harmony, says the plan for the new site would include not just protection from the elements but English classes, job training and assistance to ensure that the workers rights are not violated.

"What we want to try to do here is build activities where people can begin to understand each other and feel like everybody here is a neighbor one with another."

Many local residents are not feeling as neighborly. Jack Corkey, who owns a local bread shop says, "For me the issue is not so much that it's taxpayer money, more that if the people are availing themselves of government services are primarily illegal aliens, I think that's a problem for a lot of people that taxpayers' money's being used for that."

Many residents think the proposed center would only attract more illegal aliens to Herndon. Maryann Cerick lives near the current site and thinks its a bad idea. She says, "I don't think the town has any business encouraging people to come in. It's bringing disease, it's bringing a bad name to the town of Herndon."

Despite a chorus of complaints from local residents, Herndon Mayor Michael O'Reilly supports building a new site. He said, "There are a lot of people saying we may attract more illegal immigrants if we establish a regulated site. What I think they fail to consider and understand is that we currently have a day laborer site."

The mayor says maintaining the status quo, a growing number of people hanging on a street corner, is unacceptable. "I'd like the federal government to resolve this for me or the state government but no one is doing anything."

Since local governments do not have the authority to enforce immigration laws, the town of Herndon can't make the problem go away. So they must find a way to live with it.