DALTON, Ga.—It wasn’t quite a day without immigrants in Dalton on Friday, but a couple of dozen businesses closed their doors in support of immigrants and in opposition to Georgia’s new immigration law.
Adrian Salaices closed his convenience store, Carniceria Nacho, and his family traveled to neighboring Chattanooga to spend the day to help the cause, he said.
“I thought about [whether to participate] because Friday is our busiest day and we are going to have losses, but it doesn’t matter because we need to support the community,” he said.
Groups throughout the state organized several events this weekend in opposition to House Bill 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, which went into effect three days before the country celebrates Independence Day.
Friday was a “Day Without Immigrants,” when businesses were asked to close and shoppers were asked to stay home.
Today the Georgia Latino Alliance For Human Rights expects more than 20,000 people to march in front of the state Capitol, including participants from North Carolina, Louisiana and Washington, D.C.
Along Dalton’s East Morris Street, which has many businesses that serve Hispanics, a mix of establishments bore signs saying, “Este negocio no abrirá el 1 de julio en apoyo a la comunidad hispana,” or “This business will not open July 1 in support of the Hispanic community.”
Francisco Paniagua, owner of Paniagua Auto Sales, said he supports the community but would have lost thousands of dollars if he closed his business.
“I know that we need to be united, but I want people to know that if we close, we lose a lot more than if you miss a day of work at a factory,” he said.
By 2 p.m. he had sold two cars, and he needed to sell another two to make the payments on more than 200 cars, he said.
“The bank is not going to forgive the interest if I close for one day,” he said.
ABOUT THE LAW
Jobs in agriculture, construction and the carpet industry, particularly in Dalton, have attracted immigrants, illegal and legal, to Georgia.
The Pew Hispanic Center says Georgia ranks seventh for the largest share of illegal immigrants, at 425,000 — down from 475,000 in 2007.
And according to the U.S. census, the Hispanic population in Whitfield County grew from 18,417 in 2000 to 32,471 in 2010.
In April the Georgia General Assembly passed what is now considered among the toughest immigration laws in the nation. It mirrors Arizona’s controversial law.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash temporarily blocked two of the most controversial parts of the law. Twenty-one plaintiffs, including Dalton’s Coalition of Latino Leaders, argued that the law is unconstitutional and asked for an injunction.
One blocked section authorizes local law enforcement officers to investigate the immigration status of anyone suspected of having broken the law.
The other section halted by the judge prohibits transporting and harboring illegal immigrants while committing another criminal offense.
In his opinion, Thrasher called the law “a state regulation of immigration,” and said some sections “will undermine federal immigration enforcement priorities by vastly increasing the number of immigration queries to the federal government from Georgia.”
He wrote the “mere presence in this country without authorization is not a federal crime.”
And he said “the apparent legislative intent is to create such a climate of hostility, fear, mistrust and insecurity that all illegal aliens will leave Georgia.”
But Thrasher also dismissed some of the plaintiffs’ arguments, including that the law violates the constitutional right to travel.
D.A. King, president of Georgia’s Dustin Inman Society, a group that opposes illegal immigration, said the key provisions of the law remain intact.
“We are very thrilled that our law goes into effect, it’s very comprehensive and again it goes after the root cause of illegal immigration,” added King, who said he worked closely with legislators to craft the law.
In 2006 Georgia passed what was then considered the toughest immigration law in the country.
King said the new law is “aimed at improving and refining the 2006 law.”
“We are ending what is a de facto Georgia amnesty for illegal employers, illegal aliens and elected officials who have been ignoring the law,” he said.
State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, voted for the law but on Friday called implementation of the bill a “solemn and sad day” for all of Georgia.
“It is the failure of the federal government that has forced us to take these steps,” he said. “The federal government needs to allow for more lawful immigration. We need to completely rethink the way we do immigration.
“What we have now is essentially a racist quota system.”
PROTESTING THE LAW
In a small shopping center on East Morris Street, the A2 Convenience Store was the only shop open next to several closed restaurants and shops. The owner of the store is not Hispanic and decided to remain open, said Santo Cruz, who worked behind the counter Friday.
“He said he was going to work so I needed to be at work today,” Cruz said. “So I’m here today. I can’t lose my job.”
Friday was much busier than normal for the business because so many other stores were closed, but the traffic on East Morris Street was much lighter than usual, Cruz said.
He said he supports people protesting the new law but is not sure that asking Hispanic businesses to close and people to stay at home is the right approach.
“I think it just hurts the Hispanic community. It doesn’t make any difference in the American community,” he said. “And just one day probably won’t matter that much anyway.”
At Carniceria Nacho on Underwood Street, car after car pulled up at the store. Most people jumped out and tried to open the door before reading the notice about the protest.
Greg Horton, who can’t read Spanish, tried to figure out why his favorite neighborhood store wasn’t open when he stopped by for a soft drink.
“I just got off work and needed something to drink. I probably come by here two or three times a week,” he said, after tugging on the locked door.
Horton said he is good friends with the owner of the store. After hearing why the store was closed, he said he supports what the Hispanic community was trying to do. He doesn’t know that much about the new immigration law, he said, but Hispanics are vital to Dalton.
“If they left — if it wouldn’t shut down, it would certainly slow to a crawl,” he said. “I have a lot of Hispanic friends. They are good family people. They just want to take care of their families like everyone else.”
Efrain Becerra, who has lived in Dalton for 16 years and works for a carpet factory, also tried the door at Carniceria Tienda with no luck. He had heard about the “Day Without Immigrants” but didn’t take it seriously.
“I didn’t think anybody would do it,” he said.
Across the state, the Day Without Immigrants was a success, its organizers said.
About 120 businesses in the Atlanta metro area were closed, with more than that statewide, said Gina Perez, with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. Many of the large Hispanic restaurants and shopping areas in Atlanta suburbs were “ghost towns” throughout the day, Perez said.
No official data was available for Dalton as of 7 p.m. Friday.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington said he was unaware of the planned protest and had not heard anyone talk about it Friday. He said the holiday weekend was probably not the best day to have an impact on the city, since many carpet mills close down and a lot of people are on vacation.
Pennington vocally opposed the state immigration measure. He said there are federal laws to deal with the issue if they were enforced and that Dalton will have a more serious economic downturn if many Hispanics move away.
“Our state passing another law was just pretty much overkill,” he said Friday. “But I don’t think the law really changes anything.”
Some Dalton residents said the law’s effects began to be felt even before it passed.
Iliana Rivera said her daughters are going to Mexico this weekend and she soon will catch up with them.
Her husband was deported last year and, even though she’s a U.S. citizen, she said it’s time to go.
Paniagua, the auto dealer, said he has lost about 60 percent of his Hispanic clients in the last six months, but it has been especially noticeable in the last two.
“I hope the situation gets better because just as we are losing money, the state is losing money,” he said.
Father Paul Williams’ problem with the law and similar enforcement measures is the deportation of noncriminal illegal immigrants, who he said are not the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s priority.
Hispanics are a majority of the 5,000 regular Sunday churchgoers at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where Williams is the priest.
The new law, Williams said, “is meant to turn sheriff deputies and police officers in Dalton and Whitfield into immigration enforcers.”
“The [Whitfield] sheriff’s department and the Dalton [police] department seem unconcerned that ICE has stepped up deporting noncriminal aliens,” he said.
Bruce Frazier, the Dalton Police Department’s spokesman, has said the department is not involved with immigration enforcement and officers have to enforce the law.
But Williams said he “respectfully disagrees.”
“Officers should be allowed to use discretion, as the ICE director [John Morton] said, but they are really not and I think that they can,” he said.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...