Thursday, January 18, 2007

Herndon's anti-immigrant law challenged

Regular readers may recall a series of articles that I noted here about the hamlet of Herndon, Virginia, last year. To recap: a group of predominately Latino men were gathering at a local Seven Eleven looking for day labor work. The men were a sore topic in the community, and everyone agreed they should not be congregating in the parking lot. As an alternative, community volunteers organized a controversial day labor center a few blocks away. The proposed center caused an uproar because some in the community believe that the day labor center encourages undocumented immigration. When local elections rolled around last year, a number of anti-immigrant politicians were elected to Herndon's town council. They proceeded to pass a number of ordinances to "discourage" undocumented immigration, one of which is an "anti-solicitation" law.

Today's Washington Post reports that the anti-solicitation law is currently being challenged in court, and similar jurisdictions around the nation are watching this case closely to see if their own anti-immigrant legislation will be similarly challenged.

The purpose the anti-solicitation ordinance was enacted in September 2005. It prohibits anyone in a vehicle from trying to hire someone standing on the sidewalk or street; it also prohibits anyone on the street from asking someone in a vehicle -- or who has just gotten out of one -- for work.

Attorneys for the defendant have asked that the case be dismissed on First Amendment grounds; solicitation, they argue, has long been protected by the courts as free speech. Specifically, they said Herndon's law is flawed because it focuses only on solicitation for employment, while leaving other forms of solicitation -- such as charitable contributions or the sale of goods -- unrestricted.

Similar laws have been successfully challenged in other cases across the U.S. For instance, a federal judge in California ruled last May that day laborers in Redondo Beach had the right to look for jobs on public sidewalks. In 2004, city police arrested 60 workers in a sting operation under an ordinance the city passed in 1987 as a traffic control measure.

Although Herndon's Town Council members are adamant that they can refine this law if it the current one is dismissed, they may have trouble crafting an ordinance that does not effect other types of acceptable solicitation, such as car wash fund raisers that teenagers often undertake, the Salvation Army bell ringers, or girl scouts vending cookies on local sidewalks.

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