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

Official Bigotry
In the charged atmosphere of North Georgia, bigotry tends to bubble up in surprising settings — like city council chambers. This September, 12 years after a Chamblee councilman recommended catching immigrants in bear traps, a verbal melee broke out at what was supposed to be a routine city council meeting in neighboring Doraville.

Once an overwhelmingly white suburb of 10,000, celebrated in pop song by the Atlanta Rhythm Section as "a touch of country in the city," Doraville is now 43% Hispanic officially — and perhaps 60% unofficially.

The city has seen some "white flight" in response, but not by its elected officials: Until this January, Doraville's mayor and six council members were all white men between the ages of 60 and 73 who'd been in office for more than two decades. The council now has a Hispanic member and a woman. But the old regime made itself heard on Sept. 20.

Doraville had decided to charge sponsors of an Oct. 12 "Festival de la Raza" (raza means "race") march $2,000 for police security — an unprecedented fee with no basis in local law.

When members of the march's sponsoring group, the Coordinating Council of Latino Community Leaders of Atlanta, decided to attend the Sept. 20 council meeting to protest, state Sen. Vincent Fort of Atlanta went with them.

Fort, a history professor at Morris Brown College who represents a predominantly African-American district in the city, believed that charging for security "was a violation of free speech. It was clear to me that they were being treated differently because of who they are."

As a civil-rights activist and a student of civil-rights history, Fort felt compelled to stand with the protesters. In fact, he was the first to speak. But almost as soon as he began, Lamar Lang, a former Doraville mayor who now sits on the council, interrupted to question Fort's right to address the council.

"Being a senator doesn't cut any ice with me," Lang said. "I'm going to call a spade a spade."

After a brief but heated exchange, Fort resumed reading his statement in support of the marchers. And then Lang got really cranked up. "Latinos are freeloaders," he declared. "The city doesn't have to pay for charges incurred by the undocumented."

A couple of weeks later, Lang issued an apology of sorts, saying, "Maybe I shouldn't have made that statement." After some negotiations with the Doraville police chief, the Festival de la Raza went off without a hitch. Of course, D.A. King and a band of American Resistance members were part of the crowd.

In the wake of the city council meeting, Fort couldn't help being struck by the parallels between the backlash against black civil rights and the current anti-immigration movement.

"Ultimately, Lang was saying what many people in Doraville — and this whole area — believe. As their numbers increase, you're going to see more and more resentment against Latinos in Georgia, not less.

"And especially as they start to assert themselves and defend their rights, it won't be pleasant. We know that from the civil-rights movement.

"Take the hate crimes in Canton. People usually don't report those kinds of incidents, because many of them are undocumented and fear the police. If one or two are reported, you know there are a lot more of those crimes happening. And we won't see an end of them any time soon."

Life and Death in Georgia
While Georgia's immigration debate heats to a boiling point, Domingo Lopez Vargas waits for justice — justice, and a ticket home. Having sworn off day labor, he works night shifts now, cutting up chickens at the nearby Tyson plant, wincing through the pain that shoots up his right arm when he lowers the boom on a bird.

But it's only temporary, he says. "I called my wife and told her what happened. She told me to move back to Guatemala. I wanted to, but I didn't have enough money to go back and the police officers told me not to go out of the country because they will still need me to work on the case. After the case is finished, I want to go back to my family."

It could take a while. At press time, no trial date had been set for Lopez' assailants. The delay is not particularly surprising, since Cherokee County's district attorney and both its Superior Court judges removed themselves from the case, citing their ties to defendant Ben Cagle's prominent Republican family. The prosecution had to be shifted to neighboring Cobb County, home base of American Resistance.

Until Oct. 25, when Georgia's hate-crime law was declared unconstitutional because of vague wording, activists were pressing the Cobb County district attorney to bring hate crime charges against Lopez' assailants — and those of Carlos Perez and Elias Tíu.

"These victims were chosen, clearly, because they were Latino day laborers," says MALDEF's Tisha Tillman. "And if you're going to say that robbery was the motive, why were these men beaten with fists and sticks and pipes?"

Because so few atrocities committed against Hispanics are ever reported — much less brought to trial — Angela Arboleda, civil-rights analyst for the National Council of La Raza, says justice is especially important in this case, hate crimes or no hate crimes.

"The message sent by these assaults is already bad enough," she says. "If you wake up at 5 a.m. and want to work hard in Georgia, you're putting your life at risk."

Every weekday morning, just down the hill from the old mill house where Lopez lives, scores of laborers still gather to take that risk.

On a misty morning in late September, a couple of dozen have assembled at MUST Ministries, a two-story brick storefront converted into one of Georgia's few job centers for day laborers. MUST provides a measure of safety, taking contractors' names and license-plate numbers in case there's trouble.

But many contractors prefer to stop up the street, where dozens more men wait in front of Tienda Guatemalteca and La Luna Panadería, a bakery — and where no ID is required.

"Everyone knows it's dangerous," says Manolo, an ebullient 22-year-old from Chiapas, in southern Mexico, who's volunteering at MUST on a late September morning.

"American men — they don't like to pay. That's usually the trouble. But some people have been robbed and beaten — right up there." He points up the street toward one of the unofficial work sites, where dozens of jornaleros have crowded around a contractor's truck, clamoring for work.

A few blocks up the street at La Luna Panadería, Antonio (who doesn't want to give his last name) believes things have gotten a little better since he arrived in Canton four years ago.

Back then, "Americans would throw things out their cars at me when I would walk down this street to lunch." On one memorable occasion, as he walked through the local park with friends, he says a group of black and white men drove by and opened fire on them with pellet guns.

That hasn't happened in a while, Antonio says. But there was that day last year when he came to work to find a dead man out front on the sidewalk. "He had bruises all over like he was beaten," Antonio says.

The police came, the body was taken away, and "The Latino community still has no idea what happened." Nor do Canton police. But since the Cherokee High School students were rounded up, says Assistant Police Chief Jeff Lance, no more bruised Hispanic bodies have been reported in Canton.

"It's been real quiet," Lance says. "Knock on wood."