Xenophobic Hatred Grows with Latino Population in Georgia

In Georgia, where nearly 1 million Hispanic immigrants have arrived since 1990, xenophobic hatred and violence are on the rise

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For the first time since the African slave trade closed down, the South experienced large-scale immigration by a "non-traditional" population in the 1990s.

Six of the seven states with the nation's fastest-growing Hispanic populations from 1990 to 2000 were in the South — including Georgia, where the number of legal Hispanic immigrants swelled by 300%. And demographers estimate that the total number of Hispanic immigrants, including those who are undocumented, is one and a half to two times that number.

 

A telling statistic: Hispanic babies now account for 12.6% of all births in Georgia, where the official percentage of Hispanics was 5.3% in 2000.

 

The growth is only accelerating. In the first few years of the new millennium, Georgia's Hispanic population grew faster than any other state's, and U.S. Census figures indicate that 102 Hispanics are moving there legally every day.

Domingo Lopez
For high-school students hunting for “easy prey,” Domingo Lopez Vargas fit the description. He was robbed and assaulted amid the debris in the background.

CANTON, Ga. -- On a frigid afternoon last February, Domingo Lopez Vargas decided to call it a day. A diminutive 54-year-old with bowl-cut hair and a gold tooth that gleams when he smiles, Lopez had left his dirt-poor Guatemalan farm village 15 years before, determined to earn some decent money for his wife and nine children.

After picking oranges in Tampa, Fla. — "too hot!" Lopez says — he'd joined a mid-1990s wave of immigrants heading for the piney hills and exploding exurbs of North Georgia. Lopez settled in Canton, a former mill village 35 miles north of Atlanta.

With the construction boom spreading ever northward from Atlanta, the area was fast becoming one of the most popular — and lucrative — U.S. destinations for immigrant workers.

Unlike many of his compadres, Lopez had legal status, which helped him find steady work hanging doors and windows. But last February, the work dried up and Lopez joined the more than 100,000 jornaleros — day laborers — who wait for landscaping and construction jobs on street corners and in front of 7-Elevens and other tiendas all across North Georgia.

Usually there are plenty of pickup trucks that swing by, offering $8 to $12 an hour for digging, planting, painting or hammering. But this day, nada. By late afternoon, Lopez had had enough of standing on Main Street waiting with others in the cold. He gave up and walked up the street to McFarland's, a grocery store in a beat-up shopping center.

"I got milk, shampoo and toothpaste," he recalls through an interpreter. "When I was leaving the store, this truck stopped right in front of me and said, 'Do you want to work?'" Lopez hasn't picked up much English in 15 years, but he knew what that meant. "I said, yes, how much? They said nine dollars an hour. I didn't ask what kind of job. I just wanted to work, so I said yes."

Until that afternoon, Lopez says, "Americans had always been very nice to me." Which might explain why he wasn't concerned that the guys in the green pickup — all four of them — looked awfully young to be contractors. Or why he didn't think twice about being picked up so close to sunset. "I took the offer because I know sometimes people don't stop working until 9 at night," he says.

The four young men, all students at Cherokee High School, drove Lopez to a remote spot strewn with trash. "They told me to pick up some plastic bags that were on the ground. I thought that was my job, to clean up the trash. But when I bent over to pick it up, I felt somebody hit me from behind with a piece of wood, on my back."

It was just the start of a 30-minute pummeling that left Lopez bruised and blooded from his thighs to his neck.

"I thought I was dying," he says. "I tried to stand up but I couldn't. I couldn't understand what they were saying." Finally, after he handed over all the cash in his wallet, $260, along with his Virgin Mary pendant, the teenagers sped away.

Hotbed of Hate
Lopez, it turned out, was only the latest victim in a series of robberies and assaults on Hispanic day laborers in Canton. The first report had come on Nov. 15, 2003, when 22-year-old immigrant Elias Tíu was jumped, robbed and beaten near the old mills in downtown Canton.

The most recent had been just one day before Lopez landed in the hospital, when 22-year-old Carlos Perez had been offered work by three teenagers — including two of those accused of assaulting Lopez.

The script was much the same: Perez had been driven to an abandoned house, punched with fists and clobbered with a metal pipe. He threw his wallet at the teenagers during the beating; they extracted his $300 in cash and tossed it back at him.

After reports of Lopez and Perez' assaults hit the news, it was just a matter of days before seven Cherokee High School students were under arrest. "At least one of them was going around school bragging about robbing and beating up Mexicans," says Canton's assistant police chief, Jeff Lance.

"They were looking for easy prey."

Police can't say how much "easy prey" the Cherokee students might have found between November and February. According to Lance, "a number" of day laborers reported similar robberies and assaults — highly unusual, he notes, because immigrants normally "don't want to deal with us."

Tíu was the only previous victim detectives were able to locate. "They tend to move from one house to another," Lance says, "so it's hard to find the victims."

Three solved cases were enough to send a jolt through Cherokee County. True, like most of North Georgia, Cherokee is about as conservative as it gets.

Conservative enough that not one single Democrat ran for election this year in the entire county. Conservative enough that a paper copy of the Ten Commandments was recently displayed on the second floor of Canton's Cherokee Justice Center.

Conservative enough that in 2002, when Cherokee High School Principal Bill Sebring banned t-shirts with rebel-flag imagery after black students complained, 150 white students showed up the next day defiantly clad in Dixie Outfitters shirt and caps with rebel flags and cheered on by adult protesters from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other "heritage" groups.

But hate crimes? That's a different story.

"It just floored everybody," says Lance. "These good old boys from Cherokee High School doing this?" It's not clear whether these "good old boys" were involved in the rebel-flag protests, which forced the high school to close down for an entire day. (Principal Sebring declined to be interviewed for this story.)

But one of those charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault and abduction was 18-year-old Ben Cagle, an heir to one of the county's most powerful families; his grandparents founded the Cherokee Republican Party, which so dominates local politics that not a single Democrat ran for office this year in the county. Cagle was president of Cherokee High's agricultural club.

Eighteen-year-old Devin Wheeling, the only teenager charged in all three incidents, was a JROTC cadet. Another of the alleged perpetrators was an Explorer Scout planning to become a firefighter. They'd known each other since middle school, played Dizzy Dean baseball and gone to church together.

Nobody was more floored than Lopez, of course. His injuries kept him out of work for four months, and left him with more than $4,500 in medical bills. Sometimes he still puzzles over his attackers' motives.

"They were young," he speculates, "and maybe they didn't have enough education. Or maybe their families are murderers who taught them to kill people, and that is what they have learned."

Or maybe they grew up in America's latest hotbed of anti-immigrant hate.