Raising the Alarm
Small-Town Resistance Helped to Seal Defeat
Friday, June 29, 2007
GAINESVILLE, Ga. -- Stephanie Usrey strode up to her local Wal-Mart store the other morning with the steely look of a boxer about to step into the ring.
A stay-at-home mother of two, Usrey has dreaded shopping at this particular branch ever since a Friday afternoon about five years ago, when she said she suddenly noticed she was the only non-Latino customer.
"That was the first time I looked around and said, 'Man, I didn't realize how many Mexicans there were here,' " Usrey, 39, recalled. "And they don't seem to feel any discomfort when they're, like, six inches from your face and talking to each other in their language, either. I just felt very encroached upon. . . . It was like an instant feeling of 'I'm in the minority, and if we don't get control over this, pretty soon all of America will be outnumbered.' "
That sense of alarm, echoed in communities across the nation, helped seal defeat for the Senate immigration bill Thursday. Fueled by talk-radio hosts and Web sites, Usrey and tens of thousands of other first-time activists bombarded their senators with phone calls and e-mails decrying the bill as an unacceptable amnesty for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Nowhere were the bill's opponents more influential than here in Georgia, whose two Republican senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, originally helped craft the legislation. Two days after its unveiling in May, Chambliss was booed at his state's Republican convention. Isakson's office received more than 21,000 calls from opponents of the bill, compared with 6,000 from supporters.
Thursday, both Georgia senators voted to kill the bill they once supported.
Analysts say the unprecedented passion over immigration is largely the result of the seismic shift in settlement patterns since the mid-1990s -- when the expanding economy prompted a surge of immigrants to bypass longtime gateway states such as California, New York and Texas, in favor of suburban and rural regions of the South and Midwest. Within a decade, the foreign-born population of 25 states doubled. In six other states with almost no prior experience of Latino immigration, including Georgia, the Latino population more than tripled.
"I think this new pattern of immigration is what's really pushing the politics of this," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "Before, people outside the seven gateway states didn't care much one way or the other about immigration. Now, you suddenly have all these people across Middle America seeing immigrants in their neighborhoods."
Gainesville, an area of about 102,000 set along a lake in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is solid Bush territory. Even now, many locals speak of the president's support of the Senate bill the way one would of a beloved son who has momentarily strayed but is sure to come to his senses.
This is still a place where men take their sons deer hunting and moms call out to one another in the supermarket in cheerful Southern drawls. And although the highways leading out of the city have been colonized by the usual sprawl of Home Depot, PetSmart and OfficeMax big-box stores, downtown Gainesville retains a tranquil, small-town feel. Colonnaded white mansions line one of the major avenues. Clothing boutiques and cafes ring a landscaped central square with a monument dedicated to "Our Confederate Soldiers."
A few feet away, in almost as prominent a spot, stands a statue of a rooster -- a testament to local pride in the chicken processing plants that have given the region its identity as "poultry capital of the world" since the 1950s.
But those poultry plants are arguably most responsible for the wave of immigration transforming Gainesville. For years the plants, which include Mar-Jac, Pilgrim's Pride and Tysons, among many others, employed mostly African Americans to do the grueling work at the heart of poultry processing. Then, in the early 1980s, a growth of other industries opened up less-taxing jobs.