Due to a production error in an early edition of March 6, several paragraphs were missing from an article headlined "Hispanic Immigration Boom Rattles South," including the following quotes: Leah Totten of MDC Inc., a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based think tank, said: "The problem this presents socially is that the black and white communities at least know each other. We've been working with these problems for hundreds of years. Now there is a new group that does not speak the same language, and the social tensions have increased." David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman and former Louisiana legislator, staged an anti-immigration rally last month in Siler City, N.C., and said, "To get a few chickens plucked, is it worth losing your heritage?" (Published 03/07/2000)
This small rural town in the center of the state has 25 churches, 18 police officers, 12 doctors, 4 dentists, 2 poultry-processing plants--and a population of 5,500 that has undergone such dramatic change in the last few years that longtime residents can scarcely grasp what has happened.
One indication is the sign in Spanish outside the local hospital: "Entrada, entrance." Another is the student body--more than 40 percent Hispanic--at Siler City Elementary School. At the two poultry plants, at least 80 percent of the workers cutting up chickens are fairly recent arrivals from Mexico, Nicaragua and other countries.
As the 2000 census is sure to confirm, the Hispanic population in America is exploding, from 22.4 million in 1990 to an estimated 30.3 million in 1998. Once the census is completed, many believe the latest estimates will prove shockingly low. In small towns and large cities, particularly across the South, the influx of Hispanic immigrants, mostly illegal, is straining schools and social services, forcing police departments and other agencies to rethink their ways of dealing with citizens and changing forever the old idea of what a southerner is.
North Carolina is in the vanguard. According to the Census Bureau, the Hispanic population here has burgeoned 110 percent from 1990 to 1998, but Georgia is not far behind, with a 102 percent increase, and Tennessee's Hispanic population has grown nearly 90 percent. Every one of the southern states, except West Virginia, has experienced a phenomenal flood of Hispanic newcomers. Their interest in the region is basic: They are drawn by jobs--actually recruited in some cases by employers desperate for entry-level workers--and unemployment rates that in places are a rock-bottom 2 percent.
"In the South, we're in the situation where what is basically a biracial community that was still dealing with issues of prejudice has now become a multiracial community," said Leah Totten of MDC Inc., a Chapel Hill-based think tank that compiles a biannual report called "State of the South."
"The problem this presents socially is that the black and white communities at least know each other. We've been working with these problems for hundreds of years," she said. "Now there is a new group that does not speak the same language, and the social tensions have increased."
Many communities, like Siler City, located about 40 miles west of Raleigh on the rural southern fringe of the booming Research Triangle area, have found themselves ill-prepared for the onslaught. It happened so swiftly here, in little more than five years, town officials say, that the pressures cannot help but show.
Last year, the chairman of the local Chatham County Commission raised the stakes--and drew a firestorm of attention--when he wrote the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to demand a crackdown on illegal immigrants, only to do an about-face after a recent sensitivity-building trip to Mexico.
Seizing on the publicity the town had received, David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman and former Louisiana legislator who recently founded the New Orleans-based National Organization for European American Rights (NOFEAR), arrived here last month to stage an anti-immigration rally. From the steps of the town hall, he railed at a crowd of several hundred supporters and protesters, "To get a few chickens plucked, is it worth losing your heritage?"
Duke was invited here by a local service station owner with reported connections to the white-supremacist National Alliance. A handful of supporters held signs that said, "To Hell with the Wretched Refuse" and "Pollution of Our Population is Stupid," but Hispanic leaders had encouraged Hispanic residents to stay home, and town police, fortified by about 100 officers from surrounding areas, breathed a sign of relief when the rally passed peacefully.
For many longtime residents, the town's rapid transformation into what some derisively call "Little Mexico" caught them completely off guard. "I don't want to say anything against anybody," said one woman, who did not want to give her name, "but they just came in and took over."
With its charming older houses and traditional downtown, the community in the past had drawn the likes of actress Frances Bauvier, the beloved Aunt Bea of "Andy Griffith" fame, who, although not a native Carolinian, chose to live out her retirement here. Until recently, its most newsworthy event was the three-day Chicken Festival in May.
Ilana Dubester, who since 1995 has headed Hispanic Liaison, a local private nonprofit agency that assists the new residents, said the influx began with young male workers who eventually brought in their immediate families and then extended relatives. She estimates that there are now about 10,000 Hispanics in a county that a decade ago had about 40,000 mostly black and white residents, according to the 1990 census.
"The feeling I got from local officials and government folks at first was that the Latinos were going to come and go. They were seen as migrants," said Dubester, a native of Brazil. "It took a little while for people here to realize they were not going to leave, they were going to stay. Everyone has to adapt to what the city looks like now, and it's a different city from what the older residents grew up in. And these new people are not white Anglo-Saxons, which makes it harder, because after all, this is still the South."
The problems quickly became evident--not enough housing, inadequate medical services, overcrowding in the schools, traffic congestion--the same problems, critics say, produced by the nationwide Hispanic influx that are the subject of 80 controversial billboards put up across the country by a New York-based group called ProjectUSA. Many of them have been erected in this region, said the group's founder, Craig Nelson, who also said he is "trying to excite debate on immigration in nonracial terms."
Here in Siler City, said longtime Police Chief Lewis Phillips, one of the most vexing problems had to do with the newcomers' lack of driver's licenses, vehicle registrations and auto insurance. A recent $5 million drug bust involving Mexican immigrants fanned the flames.
About six months ago, Chatham County Commission Chairman Rick Givens, a retired airline pilot, felt compelled to write his letter to the INS, which brought the media focus to Siler City. After a recent "humbling" trip to Mexico, along with Phillips and about two dozen others, sponsored by the N.C. Center for International Understanding, Givens said he would not write such a letter again.
"But if the letter didn't do anything else, it opened up a dialogue," he said last week. "It was what people had been thinking about for 10 years and didn't say anything. I didn't see why it had to be hush-hush."
In Mexico during the recent week-long visit, Givens said, he witnessed firsthand the harsh poverty that propelled people to escape across the border and saw how money sent by the Mexican immigrants helped to ease lives back home. Now, he says, "it is a moot point here to think about legal or illegal. That's a job for the federal government. I'm not going to push anything now except how to help our community."
Just last week, Givens said, he received a certified letter from Duke, threatening a recall campaign "if I don't come around to his way of thinking. . . . I told David Duke, if you've got a positive solution, pick up the phone and call me. I'm all ears."
In an interview last week, Duke said the problems of Siler City are symbolic of the problems besetting many communities in the United States.
"The residents of the city, many of them, have family that goes all the way back to the 1700s here," he said. "In the blink of an eye, historically, they're seeing their entire city change. What's happening in Siler City is an American tragedy."
Givens, Phillips and Dubester, buoyed with new hope, want to prove him wrong. Local officials are holding meetings to coordinate assistance agencies and are considering ideas like English-immersion classes for Hispanic students and driving instruction for adults. It is a start in the right direction, Dubester said.
"You know the expression, 'the silver lining in the cloud'? Even the David Duke appearance is going to be a good thing for us," she said. "Because most people in Siler City were asking themselves, 'In the year 2000, do we really need the new faction of the KKK marching in town?' People who were silent, who didn't care much one way or the other, are now taking a stand: 'This is not what we are all about.' "
Wave of Change
Hispanic growth in the 1990s reached triple digits in many southern states, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Percentage change in Hispanic population, 1990-1998
N. Carolina: 110%
S. Carolina: 63%
W. Virginia: 21%