Worry grows over illegal immigrants
By JIM THARPE, CARLOS CAMPOS
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The debate rages from the carpet mills of North Georgia to the state's sprawling farm fields far to the south.
People agree that illegal immigrants — most of them Hispanic — have flooded into the state over the past two decades. But there is little consensus on what needs to be done about the thousands of Georgia residents who broke the law to enter the country.
In the South Georgia city of Tifton, Patrick Atwater worries about gang graffiti and overburdened schools.
"It's a frequent topic of conversation among the middle-class and working-class people I know," said Atwater, assistant superintendent of Tift County Schools. "Many people see this wave of cheap labor from illegal immigration as a threat to their livelihoods."
In Canton, grocer Tommy McFarland has profited from the growing Hispanic community, which he said accounts for 40 percent of his customers. "We saw this market and went for it," said McFarland, whose Canton store stocks religious candles, cans of jalapeño peppers and other items of interest to Latino shoppers.
But many Georgians fear their culture is being overwhelmed and state resources depleted by undocumented workers who they suspect don't pay taxes, but take advantage of taxpayer-funded programs.
Some acknowledge that segments of the economy rely on the labor supplied by the estimated 250,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrants in the state. Some praise the work ethic of undocumented workers at the same time they express worry about their impact.
Those sentiments were repeatedly echoed as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to more than three dozen residents in communities heavily affected by the latest wave of illegal immigration.
Much of the negative perception is based on experience or anecdote, as there is little hard data gauging the impact of illegal immigrants in areas such as public schools, crime and health care. But state and local officials say that impact is considerable.
The current backdrop for the debate is the proposed Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, set to be debated by the state Senate today. It would deny state services to illegal immigrants, and punish businesses that employ them.
Critics argue immigration is a federal issue that cannot be solved by piecemeal state laws.
But polls have shown that more than 80 percent of Georgians want the Legislature to crack down on illegal immigration. And many are voters who will be deciding this fall whether to keep their state legislators in office.
Here is what Georgians in five communities had to say about the issue:
Lawrenceville (Gwinnett County) — Recent visits to Gwinnett Medical Center and a local health clinic left Gene Owens wondering whether he's laboring on behalf of illegal immigrants, too.
At both places Owens has encountered waiting rooms full of Spanish speakers. Owens said it seemed as if he was the only one paying.
"You think that's added to our health care costs?" he asked. "Absolutely."
In fact, the state served 23,972 illegal immigrants through emergency Medicaid at a cost of $114.2 million in the 2005 fiscal year.
Owens, 75, and his wife say Latin Americans are taking over the corner of Lawrenceville they've called home for 25 years. The closest shopping center features the Los Diaz Market. And a larger plaza, called El Pueblito, is under construction just down Ga. 20.
"It bothers me that illegals come over here and don't assimilate into our society," Owens said.
In Gwinnett County, one out of every five residents is now foreign-born.
People unhappy about illegal immigration say they're not anti-Hispanic. Locals point to recently elected City Councilman David Rodriguez, a neighborhood activist who is of Cuban descent.
Bill Jacobsen, 52, laments that many illegal laborers are paid in cash and wire money back to their home countries.
Jacobsen should know. He has likely paid them. Jacobsen, a part-time construction worker, said he has picked up day laborers. He says he needed them to stay competitive on a few larger renovation projects.
If there weren't so many illegal immigrants in the industry, Jacobsen said he could demand a higher price for decks and home renovations.
Even so, he concedes that without illegal immigrants, there wouldn't be enough construction workers to meet demand in metro Atlanta. "It's a pickle," he said.
Dalton (Whitfield County) — Bob Rodriguez is convinced his name cost him a seat on the County Commission.
Rodriguez, 43, is certain he had the conservative credentials to please voters in this corner of northwest Georgia dubbed the "Carpet Capital of the World."
He held leadership positions in the local Republican Party. He posed with GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss for campaign brochures.
But, the New York native said, he just couldn't convince voters he wasn't part of the Hispanic immigration wave.
A friend of Rodriguez tried to convince her father that the Air Force veteran of Puerto Rican heritage was a good guy, worthy of public office. The father's response, according to Rodriguez: "I'm not votin' for no damn Mexican — it doesn't matter what country he's from."
Rodriguez lost to an Anglo man in a landslide, garnering only 30 percent of the vote in the Republican primary.
Hispanic workers are drawn to Dalton, in large part, by the carpet mills.
Rodriguez is sure the vast majority of illegal immigrants are good people who come only to earn money and work hard.
But as a misdemeanor probation officer, Rodriguez comes in contact every day with many of the community's lawbreakers — including multiple DUI offenders. For Rodriguez, controlling the flow of illegal immigrants is a matter of law and order.
"I support every crackdown [on illegal immigration]," Rodriguez said. "Drugs are coming across. You can't maintain your society if you don't stop that. It doesn't matter where they're coming from, you have to protect your borders, in my view."
Gainesville (Hall County) — For Tony Saladrigas, the problem with illegal immigrants hits close to home.
The 54-year-old plumber sees undocumented workers cutting into his livelihood.
"It's a sore spot for me," Saladrigas said. "We used to be a growing business. Now we're a shrinking business."
Moreover, the influx of Hispanics into Gainesville, many who come to work in the large poultry processing industry, has hurt his customer base.
Nowadays when people call, many want to speak to someone who knows Spanish, he said. They often reserve their business for unlicensed plumbers and handymen from their homeland.
"I know people say they are doing the jobs nobody wants, but that's not true," Saladrigas said.
Saladrigas said he supports a crackdown on illegal immigration. In a way, that sentiment feels odd to him, since the Alabama native's grandfather came from Cuba.
But Saladrigas often feels he is in a cultural tug of war, like when he walks through Wal-Mart and hears announcements in Spanish.
"Why are we changing to accommodate illegals?" he said. "They need to be deported — or make them legal."
Woodstock (Cherokee County) — State Sen. Chip Rogers need only look out the front window of his home to grasp the presence of illegal immigrants in Georgia.
Last week, a Hispanic crew was at work on a landscaping project for his next-door neighbor — at least one of whom acknowledged in Spanish that he's a new, undocumented arrival from Mexico.
Rogers, Republican sponsor of the pending illegal immigration bill, is not surprised the issue has reached his doorstep.
"When people talk about this issue, they talk about it not from simply watching the news, but from a very real personal basis," he said.
Every weekday morning, Rogers drives his daughter to school past an empty parking lot where dozens of Hispanic day laborers sit on a ledge waiting for work. The building once housed Danny's Restaurant and Pub. The most recent tenant was El Ranchon Bar and Grill Restaurante. A sign outside in Spanish invites customers in for billiards.
Donald Murdock owns an auto repair shop next to the El Ranchon property. Murdock, 45, says the day laborers don't bother him. He is concerned, however, that illegal immigrants might be sapping taxpayer resources.
"I don't blame them for coming," Murdock said. "I just think they need to be pulling their load while they're here."
Timoteo Trujillo, 18, was hoisting lumber planks over his shoulder within sight of Rogers' home last week. Trujillo told a reporter he arrived in the United States six months ago from Mexico and acknowledged he is undocumented.
Trujillo, speaking Spanish, said he was not aware of Rogers' efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. "It's hard," Trujillo said of his life. "You come here to earn money, more than anything."
Tifton (Tift County) — The local Wal-Mart in this South Georgia farming community stocks a long display of Latina music, and once a year the local Hispanic community hosts a Fiesta de Pueblo.
But many longtime residents complain about Hispanic gang graffiti. Others talk about the children of illegal immigrants overcrowding local schools and taking advantage of the local health care system.
In this county of 38,000 residents, about 8 percent are Hispanic, according the county's Web site. Locals argue the numbers could be two to four times higher — and many of those, locals say, are in the country unlawfully, mostly to work low-level agricultural jobs.
Recently, clerk Pam Hale was ringing up groceries at the East Side Superette, which counts whites, African-Americans and Hispanics as customers. Hale has worked around Hispanics in several jobs in the Tifton area — at one job she said 30 were fired during a raid when they were found to have fake Social Security cards.
"Every one I've ever been around has been a good, hard worker," she said. "They're mostly nice people."
But she said about half of the Hispanics who come into her store pay with food stamps and she guesses that many are in the county illegally. "I have to pay taxes, and I don't get any help," she said.
Dr. Ray Moreno directs the Tift Regional Medical Center. His parents and grandparents were in the Tifton area in the 1950s as migrant workers, though they were U.S. citizens.
Moreno said he understands the complexity of the debate on illegal immigration. He agrees that Hispanic immigrants, many of them in the country illegally, have brought a host of problems. But he also thinks much of the farming economy is dependent on those workers, and many locals agree.
Moreno said he would like to see a comprehensive federal policy addressing illegal immigration. He admits he does not know what should be done with the illegal immigrants already in the country.
"I'm torn," he said. "In the end I think it will work out. The question is how much pain is caused to both parties."
Staff writers Brian Feagans and Craig Schneider contributed to this article.
We are so screwed.