José Morales was heading to Ohio after crossing illegally into the United States in 1999.
But on the way he met people from his village of el Xab in Western Guatemala who were coming to Chattanooga, so he changed routes.
At the beginning, “we didn’t even have enough people for a soccer team,” Morales said, but soon they had about 150 el Xab villagers here.
Within a few years, immigrants created a mostly Hispanic soccer league in Chattanooga.
Tennessee, and to a greater extent Georgia, are what experts call new destination states, places that had few immigrants before 1990 but now have a rapidly growing immigrant population, said Aaron Terrazas, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C.
In 1990, there were 2,000 Guatemalans living in the Southeastern states of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, South and North Carolina, according to the Migration Policy Institute. By 2009, that number had jumped to 69,000, a 3,000 percent increase in 20 years. Tennessee alone had 7,000 Guatemalans and another 30,000 were living in Georgia.
The large and sudden shift in the foreign-born population has made immigration an increasingly hot-button issue in many Southern states, including Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.
To the communities where the immigrants resettle, like Chattanooga, it doesn’t matter how big or small the numbers are.
“It’s not really the numbers or the size that matters for the people who experience it,” said Terrazas. “It’s the rate of change which either makes people nervous or raises difficult social issues.”
Guatemalans tend to be one of the immigrant groups with the highest rates of poverty in the United States, according to Guatemalan government officials and American organizations that study immigration.
“This is a low-income population, not inclusively, however,” said Steven Camarota with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates stricter controls on immigration. “Not all of them are poor, but it [the poverty rate] is much higher than other immigrant groups and the native population in general.”
With lower incomes, higher poverty levels and more than half of them lacking heath insurance, Guatemalan immigrants and their children — many of whom are U.S. citizens — tend to use services such as free or reduced-price school lunches and food stamps, Camarota said.
Unauthorized immigrants don’t qualify for most social services, including Medicaid and food stamps, but their U.S.-citizen children do.
“One of the things that sours the American public on immigration is these kind of figures,” he said. “For groups from Latin America, the use rates do tend to be high, particularly for the food assistance program and Medicaid, and people feel, ‘Well, people should be self-sufficient’ and sometimes that doesn’t happen.”
Numerical limits on permanent migration to the U.S. from the Western Hemisphere, combined with increased demand for low-skilled labor, has meant that a large number of the immigrant population from Mexico and Central America is illegal, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The majority of Guatemalan immigrants live in California, Florida and Texas. But jobs in carpet factories in Dalton, Ga., chicken processing plants in Chattanooga and a boom in construction attracted immigrants, primarily from Latin America.
Guatemalans who come into the United States illegally often take the most menial of jobs. They scrub floors and toilets and make beds in hotel rooms, wash dishes at restaurants, pluck chicken feathers, pick tomatoes.
Still, many Guatemalans continue to live in poverty after they immigrate, said Terrazas, the analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.
“They face enormous challenges to economic success in the United States,” he said. “It’s clear they are at the bottom of the labor market and they face barriers to moving up.”
Many Guatemalan immigrants also live in crowded conditions. They send most of their earnings home, leaving little to pay for rent and food here. They work constantly and rarely become engaged in their new communities, said D.A. King, who founded the Marietta, Ga.-based Dustin Inman Society, which opposes illegal immigration.
But being poor in Chattanooga is not the same as being poor in their rural villages in Guatemala, said Mauro Guzmán, a Guatemalan lawmaker who heads the Immigrant Commission.
Low-income Americans have a better standard of living than poor Guatemalans, he said.
For many, even a life of struggle in Chattanooga or Dalton is much better than the life of hardships they left behind.
Stacy Johnson, executive director of La Paz Chattanooga, an organization that works closely with the Guatemalan community, said immigrant families are not very different from other local families.
“[Chattanooga] is a nice place to live, to raise a family, and they are looking for many of the same things you and I might be looking for to raise a family,” she said.
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 ...