By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
The poultry plants responded to the resulting labor shortage by welcoming workers from Mexico. Today, Hall County, of which Gainesville is the county seat, is more than 25 percent Latino, including both legal and illegal immigrants.
Max Crawford, 54, a plant production manager, estimates that 90 percent of the workers he supervises are Latino immigrants. Crawford, who asked that his company not be named because he is not authorized to speak for it, said he admires how hard Latinos work. But he is also unsettled by many of their customs, such as a tendency to throw toilet paper in the trash rather than in the toilet -- a common practice in areas of Latin America where commodes do not flush with sufficient force to handle paper.
"I mean, we actually had to show them a video explaining how you're supposed to put the toilet paper in the toilet," he said.
Crawford's friend Larry Davies, 54, shook his head in amazement.
The two were seated at one of the wooden tables at the Longstreet Cafe, the remnants of a fried chicken lunch on their plates. On one of the beige walls behind them hung a television monitor broadcasting the Fox News Channel. On another hung black-and-white photos of town landmarks destroyed by a tornado in 1936: a white-washed church; the old City Hall.
The packed restaurant seemed almost as much of a relic. It is one of the few gathering spots left in Gainesville where nearly every face is white.
Drive along the industrial strip just south of town, and you could almost be in Mexico. Pastel-colored signs identify the Tres Amigos launderette, the Flor de Jalisco grocery, the Mejor de Michoacan ice cream shop, the Casa Blanca party hall and the Iglesia Adventista del Septimo Dia.
The immigrant presence is just as noticeable in local schools. Some are as much as 70 percent Latino.
Perhaps most alarming to Crawford, however, has been the rise of Latino gangs -- not enough to cause a major spike in crime statistics but enough to keep police busy painting over graffiti on the medians and sound barriers along some roadways.
Crawford and Davies have been best buddies since their days at Gainesville High School, and there was a time when they mused that their children might go there as well.
"But not the way it is now," said Crawford, whose youngest daughter just completed her junior year at a county high school outside of Gainesville.
The restaurant's owner, Tim Bunch, 50, walked by and gave a friendly wave. Like several of his customers, Bunch is less concerned by the arrival of illegal immigrants to Gainesville than by the local reaction to them.
"Most of [the Mexicans] don't want to come here. They just need to eat," he said later. "I think we're all God's children, created in his image. . . . And I would hope hearts don't grow to a point where they are so hardened about another human being."
Still, the dominant theme of conversation around the tables was of a town being inexorably deteriorated by illegal immigration.
Martha Hemphill, 67, a retired hospital administrator, talked about how she is afraid to go to the malls after 8 p.m.
Charles Slay, 73, described how, on a recent visit to the emergency room at the city's main medical center, he was incensed to find it filled with Mexicans, whom he presumed were seeking non-emergency care because they lacked health insurance.
"You should've seen how I had to holler to get the nurse's attention," he said.
Uraina Smith, 61, and her husband, Billy Ray Smith, 66, said they were forced to sell their home in a pretty subdivision of Colonial and ranch houses called Willow Ridge because it was "taken over" by Mexicans who parked on the grass, jumped into the communal pool in their jeans shorts and crammed multiple families into the same house.
"It used to be a real nice area. Now it's a slum," said Billy Ray, with a sigh.
Although their complaints were not new, until recently few had done more than gripe to one another. Most said they were unaware when Congress considered a similar legalization plan last year. But this time around, the television and talk-radio personalities many favor here -- Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Gainesville's own Martha Zoller -- have put the issue on the front burner.
Crawford said he decided to get in touch with his senators because, "Everyone was saying you need to let them know how you feel about this right now."