The targeting of the Town of Herndon by an outside political activist group has united residents on both sides of the illegal immigration issue against a common foe.
The Virginia New Majority, an Alexandria-based political action group with ties to labor unions recently targeted Herndon, attempting to fuel political change within the town.
On its website, the Virginia New Majority claims it is a unifying voice for "all people of the Commonwealth of Virginia, particularly African-Americans, immigrants, progressive whites, youth, women and the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and questioning community."
The group is an offshoot of grassroots labor organization Tenants and Workers United, and also has other union ties. VNM's board chairman, Juan Marcos Vilar, is the political director of the Service Employees International Union. Records show VNM has received political donations from the SEIU.
This past spring, VNM ran an advertisement on the website www.Hispanic-Jobs.com, looking to recruit organizers for what it called its "Herndon campaign."
VNM Executive Director John Liss, who also is the director of Tenants and Workers United, said the "Herndon campaign" is in full swing.
"We are trying to politically engage Herndon voters against the climate of hate that has been created over the last four years," Liss said. "We are trying to rescind the anti-solicitation ordinance that the previous town council enacted as they were going out the door."
That ordinance, which took effect on July 1, prohibits "the solicitation of contributions, the distribution of hand bills and the sale of merchandise or services on public streets by pedestrians to occupants of motor vehicles." According to town officials, the ordinance was enacted as a public safety measure.
But Liss maintains the ordinance unfairly targets day laborers, the majority of whom are Hispanic.
"The previous Town Council was elected with the help of the Minutemen, a staunchly anti-immigrant organization," he said.
On Aug. 4, VNM had a private meeting in the Herndon community center to meet with 45 or so recent recruits.
"Many of these people said they viscerally feel hate as they walk down the street in Herndon," Liss said. "We have received calls from Herndon people for years saying the same thing."
Former Herndon council member Ann Null, a passionate opponent of the now-defunct Herndon Day Labor center, attended the meeting and was asked to leave by members of the VNM.
"She would not leave and was subsequently arrested," Liss said.
Null declined to comment.
"She refused to leave after being told repeatedly that it was a private meeting," said Herndon police spokesman Lt. Jeff Coulter, who added that Null was taken away in handcuffs.
According to court records, Null was charged with trespassing. Her hearing is scheduled for Sept. 29. She was released on a $1,000 bond.
On Aug. 10, VNM lead organizer Rishi Awatramani and 15 Herndon recruits attended a Herndon Town Council meeting to speak out against the town's anti-solicitation ordinance, Liss said.
Herndon resident William Campenni, who also attended the private Aug. 4 meeting but left after being asked, also spoke up. "The ordinance was passed as a safety measure, not discrimination," he said. "It is a matter of commerce and public safety, not hate."
Campenni said Friday that VNM with its "massive power and nearly unlimited union funds," has begun an onslaught focused on Herndon and plans to continue. "They will soon go after our 287(g) agreement with ICE and then try to reinstitute a day labor center," he said.
The 287(g) program allows state and local law enforcement officers to enter into a formal agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Officers are then trained to enforce federal immigration laws under certain circumstances. Herndon police began implementing the program in 2007.
"Herndon does not need you and your organization here, Mr. Liss," wrote former Herndon Mayor Carol Bruce -- who was a day labor site proponent -- in a letter to Liss after the Aug. 10 Town Council meeting. "William Campenni, in his comments at last Tuesday night's public hearing, made it clear that he and his cohorts do not want you here -- and for once I find myself in agreement with those on the opposite side of Herndon's immigration debate," Bruce continued in her letter.
"I believe your recent organizing activities have given the 'other' side ammunition to keep old issues alive and have complicated at least my plans to focus on policies that help unite us," wrote Herndon Town Council member Jasbinder Singh in another letter to Liss.
As to VNM's plans, including the targeting of Herndon's 287(g) program, Liss said the group is not disclosing any information.
"We are not telegraphing any of our punches," he said.