Town's-Eye View of Immigration Debate

On a break from work, Gainesville resident Joe Merck says of the influx of Hispanic workers:
On a break from work, Gainesville resident Joe Merck says of the influx of Hispanic workers: "I don't blame 'em coming up here, but half of 'em are illegal. We're taking care of 'em. . . . We need to send 'em back home." (Photos By Barry Williams For The Washington Post)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

GAINESVILLE, Ga. -- Harold Hogsed wonders how his grandchildren learn anything in school, with all the time their teachers spend instructing Hispanic immigrants on basic English. A drawling Georgia native, he cannot understand what the Spanish-accented adults are saying. He sees them as a drain on his tax dollars and he wishes they would all go home.

"How many people can this country hold?" Hogsed asked. "I don't have the solution to it, but something's got to be done."

Hogsed is not alone in struggling to wrap his mind around the tide of Latin American workers who have remade this north-Georgia town. City schools are now 55 percent Hispanic. More children arrive each day with their undocumented parents, often directly from Mexico. The Yellow Pages include 41 pages in Spanish. St. Michael Catholic church, which once drew 25 people to a monthly Spanish Mass, now has 6,000 Hispanic families on its parish registry.

Their numbers show just how rooted the predominantly Mexican immigrants have become in Gainesville and throughout the South. They have put pressure on public services while becoming essential players in the local economy. Amid anxiety on all sides, neighbors, advocates and the new residents are assessing their presence and their future in a debate that resonates nationally.

Proponents of more generous accommodations for illegal immigrants staged a one-day economic boycott on March 24 that shuttered businesses and boosted morale. Business and farming leaders declared that immigrants are keeping them solvent. At a Mass on Thursday night dedicated to the immigrants, the Rev. Fabio Sotelo urged 300 parishioners to persevere, pray and write the governor.

Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) is considering a strong anti-immigration bill delivered last week by the Georgia legislature. Congress is considering significant federal legislation, with Gainesville's congressman, Nathan Deal (R), among the firmest supporters of tightened borders and toughened measures. Lawyers for U.S.-born carpet workers will argue to the Supreme Court this month that a Georgia manufacturer conspired to drive down wages by importing illegal laborers.

Gainesville advertises itself as "the poultry capital of the world" and it is the chicken-processing plants that are driving much of the city's startling growth. Since 1990, the official population has nearly doubled to 32,000 and the number of Hispanics has quadrupled to compose nearly half the registered population -- and far more when illegal immigrants are considered.

When the shift changes at the factories on Industrial Boulevard, hundreds of workers in hairnets stream through the doors of Koch Foods and Pilgrim's Pride. Their origins are reflected in the Spanish banter, the salsa tunes blasting from car radios, and the young ice cream vendor who calls his cart La Paleteria Lulu.

"Reality speaks and it says that, absent Hispanic workers, we could not process chicken," said Tom Hensley, chief financial officer for Gainesville's largest chicken plant, Fieldale Farms. "There aren't enough native American people who want to work in a chicken plant at any wage. We'd be put out of business."

A dozen years ago, Fieldale employed fewer than 100 Hispanics. Today, Hispanics total 3,000 in a 4,700-person workforce that transforms live birds by the thousand into boneless chicken flesh. To win jobs that start at about $10 an hour, applicants must present at least two identity documents from a government list of 18.

"If the documents appear to be legitimate, we accept them," Hensley said.

Two workers said they got jobs at Fieldale with fake documents, a practice considered an open secret. One longtime laborer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he is counting on Congress -- "in a free country, a democracy" -- to design a compromise that legalizes needed and reliable undocumented residents.

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