04/2009

Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South

In Tennessee, a young mother is arrested and jailed when she asks to be paid for her work in a cheese factory.

In Alabama, a migrant bean picker sees his life savings confiscated by police during a traffic stop.

farmworker

In Georgia, a rapist goes unpunished because his 13-year-old victim is undocumented.

These are just a few examples of the injustices that confront Latino immigrants as they struggle to gain a foothold in the South.

The region is now home to the fastest growing population of Latinos in the country, many of them lured by the manufacturing and construction jobs created during the economic boom of the 1990s.

But many in Dixie aren't treating their new neighbors with any semblance of Southern hospitality.

In fact, Latinos in the South - many of whom came here to escape crushing poverty in their home countries - are encountering widespread hostility, discrimination and exploitation.

They are routinely cheated out of their earnings and denied basic health and safety protections. They are regularly subjected to racial profiling and harassment by law enforcement. They are victimized by criminals who know they are reluctant to report attacks. And they are frequently forced to prove themselves innocent of immigration violations, regardless of their legal status.

This treatment - which many Latinos liken to the oppressive climate of racial subordination that blacks endured during the Jim Crow era - is encouraged by politicians and media figures who scapegoat immigrants and spread false propaganda. And as a result of relentless vilification in the media, Latinos are targeted for harassment by racist extremist groups, some of which are directly descended from the old guardians of white supremacy.

Instead of acting to prohibit and eliminate systematic exploitation and discrimination against Latinos, state and local governments in much of the South have exacerbated the situation. A number of Southern communities, for example, have enacted ordinances designed to limit services to undocumented immigrants and make their lives as difficult as possible, with the ultimate goal of driving them away. In addition, many law enforcement agencies in the South, armed with so-called 287(g) agreements with the federal government, are enforcing immigration law in a way that has led to accusations of systematic racial profiling and has made Latino crime victims and witnesse

s more reluctant to cooperate with police. Such policies have the effect of creating a subclass of people who exist in a shadow economy, beyond the protection of the law.

The South's immigration explosion began in the 1990s. By 2006, six Southern states (Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee) had added 1.6 million Latinos.

Latino workers provided cheap labor to fuel the South's economy - building skyscrapers in Charlotte, harvesting onions in Georgia, slaughtering poultry in Alabama and rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina.

Many of these new arrivals left their homes in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin American countries to escape poverty, which some experts believe has been worsened by U.S. trade policies. Many crossed the border il

legally, risking their lives and freedom for opportunity in the United States, while others were originally "imported" by employers under the guestworker system. Many others are legal residents or U.S. citizens, caught in the crossfire of America's war on "illegals."

For this report, Southern Poverty Law Center researchers surveyed 500 low-income Latinos - including legal residents, undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens - at five locations in the South to take the pulse of a community that is being increasingly driven into the shadows by a sweeping anti-immigration movement.

We found a population under siege and living in fear - fear of the police, fear of the government and fear of criminals who prey on immigrants because of their vulnerability.

Many of the difficulties faced by undocumented immigrants are, no doubt, the result of their lack of legal status, which makes them easy prey for unscrupulous employers and puts them at constant risk from law enforcement. But even legal residents and U.S. citizens of Latino descent say that racial profiling, bigotry and myriad other forms of discrimination and injustice are staples of their daily lives.

"The assumption is that every Latino possibly is undocumented," says one immigrant advocate in North Carolina. "So [discrimination] has spread over into the legal population."

Systemic discrimination against Latinos in the region - by both private and public entities - constitutes a civil rights crisis that must be addressed. We offer recommendations for reform at the conclusion of this report.

Photo by Sarah Reynolds