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
By Bob Moser
Hispanic immigrants started arriving here in big numbers in the early 1990s, many helping to build venues for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Others headed north for Dalton's carpet factories and Gainesville's poultry plants. Some took to the street corners and started working day labor in Atlanta's booming suburbs, where cheap landscaping and construction help was — and is — in constant demand.
Coming to America
Day laborers are the most visible — and vulnerable — faces of a phenomenon that is rapidly transforming North Georgia into a diverse, multilingual place that one anti-immigration activist calls "Georgiafornia."
The official census numbers say Georgia's Hispanic population climbed 300% in the 1990s, adding up to 435,000 newcomers; demographers say the real number, counting illegal immigrants, is probably twice as high, and climbing. And like California before it, the state has become an epicenter for radical anti-immigration activism.
Immigration into other Southeastern states has generated low-level controversy and occasional outbursts of anti-immigrant rhetoric. In Georgia, many of the allegations are familiar: higher crime rates, littered streets, gang activity, millions spent on health care and education for "illegals."
But the backlash here has been unusually fierce. At first, the resistance was scattered, mostly taking the form of police crackdowns — arresting day laborers for loitering — and old-fashioned racial rhetoric.
In the formerly homogenous town of Chamblee, just north of Atlanta, white residents began complaining as early as 1992 about the "terrible, filthy people" standing on their street corners. At a town council meeting, one official infamously suggested that residents set bear traps in their yards to keep the Hispanics at bay. Another councilman wondered aloud whether Chamblee whites should form a vigilante group to scare off the immigrants.
Familiarity seems only to have bred contempt. Nine years after the infamous council meeting in Chamblee, Police Commander Wayne Kennedy, just down the road in Marietta, told a reporter his department had cracked down on day laborers because of residents' complaints about trash and urine in their yards.
"I guess it's a cultural thing," Kennedy said. "Probably in Mexico urinating on the sidewalk is perfectly normal."
The culture clash was predictable enough, says Remedios Gomez Arnau, Atlanta's consul general of Mexico.
"We're talking about a very new migration wave into Georgia," she says. "These are mostly people who have not been involved in traditional migrant work in the past. They're from the poorest, most rural and impoverished places in Mexico and Guatemala. And they are coming to a place where people are not familiar with migrant laborers, or with Hispanics.
A place where, in the words of Republican state Rep. Chip Rogers, "Everybody had a Southern accent when I was growing up. We were part of the Old South, for better or worse. We were all the same."
During the days of Jim Crow, some North Georgia towns enforced that sameness with a heavy hand. Signs warning black people to be out of town by sunset, some erected by local officials and others by Ku Klux Klan klaverns and White Citizens Councils, were familiar fixtures in the hills stretching north from Atlanta to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Those signs are long gone, but the mindset lingers. "Prejudice is an old, old habit to break in Georgia," says Pilar Verdes, local news editor for Atlanta's Mundo Hispánico newspaper.
In every part of the U.S. where large numbers of Hispanic immigrants have moved, anti-immigration groups have sprung up in protest. But the backlash in Georgia has been fueled not only by these "mainstream" groups, but also by hardcore neo-Nazis, Southern "heritage" activists and white-supremacist hate groups — all of them saying strikingly similar things about the "Mexican invasion."
To immigrant-rights activists like Tisha Tillman, Southeast regional director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the hate crimes in Canton show just how deep a chord these groups' messages are striking.
"The kids who committed these crimes had grown up listening to people saying that Hispanic people were lower forms of life," she says. "We know what kind of effect that rhetoric has. Day laborers are the canaries in the coal mines for immigrant communities — they're out there, exposed, as visible symbols of the community. When they're being targeted, you know there's something seriously wrong."
Stage Right: Enter the Klan
One of the first signs that Georgians' anti-Hispanic prejudice was hardening into hate came in 1998, courtesy of the Klan. In Gainesville, the self-proclaimed "poultry capital of the world," the American Knights of the KKK held a Halloween rally on the steps of the Hall County Courthouse, followed by a cross-burning in nearby Winder. As in much of North Georgia, the sight of angry men in white hoods was old news in Hall County. But the message was new.
"They screamed their disapproval of the recent Hispanic influx into the Gainesville community," wrote Kathleen Cole, who photographed the rally for Flagpole, an alternative paper based in Athens. Blacks, Jews, Catholics, gay men and lesbians — the Klan's traditional targets seemed forgotten.
Now, Cole said, "preaching against illegal immigrants" was the topic of the day.
After a turbulent backlash against the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, Gainesville's white and black communities had settled into an uneasy, largely segregated coexistence before their new Hispanic neighbors began to arrive. But remnants of the old white resistance had lingered all along.
Like everywhere else, the Klan has shrunk in size over the years. But the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens — successor to the old White Citizens Councils — has a thriving chapter in Hall County, spreading the CCC's message that "the United States is not only ceasing to be a majority white nation but is also ceasing to be a nation that is culturally part of Western civilization."
Gainesville is also home to the Georgia Heritage Coalition, which — when it's not defending the Confederate battle flag — spreads the word that "Immigration is out of control — and you are being lied to."
And in 2001, the nation's largest neo-Nazi organization, the National Alliance, announced its presence in Hall County with a rally organized to protest a proposed work center for local day laborers.
Fearing violence, immigrants and their allies steered clear of the rally, where between 30 and 40 National Alliance members carried signs with messages like "The U.S. is the world's septic tank" and "Full!"
But Pilar Verdes of Mundo Hispánico decided to see what the neo-Nazis had to say. She got an earful — especially after she attended a private rally held afterward at the Dahlonega home of National Alliance organizer Chester Doles, a former Klan grand dragon himself.
"This has nothing to do with hate," Doles told Verdes, who immigrated from Venezuela in 1989. "Hispanics are going to take America. We are going to be the minority."
Thomas Chittum, ex-mercenary in Croatia and Rhodesia and author of an anti-immigration tome called Civil War II: the Coming Breakup of America, picked up on Doles' theme. "The Southeast is going to be occupied by Mexicans, and this is going to create the beginning of a second Civil War here," he said.
"This is going to be an ethnic war."
"I was having an out-of-body experience," Verdes says. "I kept having to pinch myself. I never thought they would be so stupid to say those things. I was not hiding my tape recorder. They're very exhibitionist. And scary."
"This nation was founded by white men," Steven Barry, editor of the neo-Nazi Resister magazine and then an Alliance principal, told Verdes. "We don't need colors." Barry went on to talk about his models for resisting the Hispanic influx.
"Three of my heroes are Pinochet, Franco and the junta militar" — the notorious military board of Argentina. "Pinochet should come to the U.S. and solve our problems," Barry told Verdes. "It's good to torture people who deserve it."
Verdes was finally chased off — as fast as she could run — by a neo-Nazi who didn't like her questions. But Doles' National Alliance chapter, one of the nation's first organized around immigration issues, was just getting warmed up.
Three months after the rally, fliers began showing up on windshields in Metro Atlanta proclaiming, "Missing: A Future for White Children." Doles told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution his group would "blanket" the state to "raise awareness of the immigration issue."
A year later, the National Alliance held another rally in Gainesville to protest what it called "the brown tide ... turning Hall County into just another Third World cesspool." Despite a drizzling rain, the neo-Nazis drew twice as many supporters as they had in 2001.
Doles led a march around the blooming crepe myrtles of Gainesville's town square, bellowing: "What do we want?"
"Mexicans out!" came the answer.
"When do we want it?"
The neo-Nazis' momentum was slowed last year when Doles landed in prison on firearms charges. But to Greg Bautista, who runs El Puente Community Action in Gainesville, their fiery rhetoric had already done its work. "Those rallies were when people really started to profess their hate openly," he says. "They created a public space for that kind of message, that kind of talk."