New Georgia immigration law produces more fear than effect

New Georgia immigration law produces more fear than effect

October 4th, 2011 by Perla Trevizo in News

Spanish language Mass at the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dalton, Ga., is attended by an overflow crowd.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

POLL: Will Georgia's new law drive away immigrants?

Document: House Bill 87

IMMIGRATION FAST FACTS

In the United States, 40 million people are foreign born. Out of those, 72 percent are legal immigrants and 28 percent unauthorized.

About 4.5 million U.S.-born children were born to at least one unauthorized parent.

Inflows from unauthorized immigrants from Mexico have decreased from 500,000 a year during the first half of the decade to 150,000 per year from 2007 through 2009.

In Georgia, about 325,000 unauthorized immigrants are in the labor force, 7 percent of the total share - making it one of the states with the largest number and share of unauthorized immigrants in the labor force.

In Whitfield County, the Hispanic population increased from 18,419 in 2000 to 32,471 in 2010, a 76.29 percent change.

Source: Pew Hispanic Center

Moving Out

The number of illegal immigrants in Georgia declined from 475,000 in 2007 to 425,000 in 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Unauthorized residents only represent 4.4 percent of the total population in Georgia, but the increase from 1990 to 2010 was twelvefold. Twenty years ago, there were only 35,000 illegal immigrants in the Peach State.

ALABAMA LAW

A federal judge allowed most of Alabama's immigration law to go into effect, now considered the strictest in the country.

Among other things, school officials are required to check the immigration status of students. The law now allows police officers to check the legal status of those detained for other reasons and to hold suspected illegal immigrants without bond.

Parts of the law still blocked include making it a crime for an illegal immigrant to solicit work, to transport or harbor an illegal immigrant, and barring drivers from stopping along a road to hire temporary workers.

Similar laws have been passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia, but parts of those laws have been blocked by other federal judges.

Source: The Associated Press

ABOUT THE GEORGIA LAW

Jan. 1, 2012: People who apply for public benefits, such as housing assistance, food stamps and business licenses, must provide a "secure and verifiable" document to show proof of legal residence.

Private employers with 500 or more employees must register with and use the federal work authorization program known as E-verify.

July 1, 2012: Private employers with 100 or more employees but fewer than 500 employees also must use E-Verify.

July 1, 2013: Private employers with more than 10 employees but fewer than 100 employees also must use E-verify.

Under the law, a seven-member Immigration Enforcement Review Board was created to investigate complaints from registered voters that city, county and state officials are not enforcing immigration-related laws in Georgia.

Public employers and local governments must submit a compliance report every year to the state auditor. Subject to available funding, the state auditor is required to do a number of audits.

Source: Georgia General Assembly

DALTON, Ga. - When Georgia's Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed one of the nation's toughest immigration laws in May, many Hispanics in the area panicked.

People in the Hispanic community started to stay at home; they no longer risked being caught driving without a license. Taxi drivers picked up customers after Sunday church services. Some Hispanics packed their bags and moved to Texas, Oklahoma or Tennessee.

"People were afraid of coming to church. We saw a noticeable decline in church attendance in June and July," said the Rev. Paul Williams of St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

On July 1, House Bill 87, a new immigration law that legislators promised would stem the rising tide of illegal immigrants in Georgia, went into effect. About 40 percent of the immigrant community in the Whitfield County area is unauthorized, according to local estimates. There are about 32,000 Hispanics in the county.

Most people in the Hispanic community in the Dalton-Whitfield County area know someone who has left the state, is planning to leave or was deported.

But others waited. A federal judge enjoined two provisions of the law: one would allow police officers to check the immigration status of those detained for other reasons and the other would punish people who, while committing another offense, knowingly transport illegal immigrants - provisions that concerned unauthorized immigrants the most.

Fear in the Hispanic community abated over the summer. School enrollment did not plummet, as elected officials and community leaders had expected as a result of the law.

"It probably caused unnecessary panic in the Hispanic community because it's not doing anything much different than what we've done in the past," Whitfield County Commission Chairman Mike Babb said.

Dianne Putnam, a native of Dalton who supports the law, said she hasn't seen any changes as a result of the law. She said she's not against anyone coming in legally and becoming part of the community, but the laws need to be obeyed.

Illegal immigrants don't qualify for most federal public services, such as food stamps, but their U.S.-born children do, which needs to change, said Putnam, who is chairwoman of the Whitfield County Republican Party. The Republican Party hasn't taken a stance on the issue.

"As long as we keep making it so attractive, we are contributing to the problem," she said. "I don't want any child to go hungry, but if you are in a decent church, your church family is going to rally around you and meet that need."

Three months after the law went into effect, the mood at St. Joseph's is different. A recent service overflowed with more than 1,000 people. Dozens of Hispanics trickled in, dipped their index fingers in holy water and made the sign of the cross, then tried to find somewhere to sit or stand.

"The Hispanic community is larger than people think and much more strongly rooted than people think," said Williams of St. Joseph's.

IT'S THE ECONOMY

Dalton Mayor David Pennington said the immigration law has not had a dramatic effect yet.

The economy, with huge downturns in the city's floorcovering, carpet and construction industries, is a bigger factor in Hispanics leaving, government officials said.

Since 2006, nearly one out of five jobs has been lost in metro Dalton. Georgia lost 29,500 jobs from September 2010 to August 2011, the highest number in the nation.

And the unemployment rate remains in the double digits, at 10.7 percent in the northwest region of Georgia, which includes Whitfield County.

Pennington said he knows people have left in the last three years, when the national economy took a nosedive, because there are empty houses, "for rent" signs outside apartment buildings and, at one point, trash pickup declined.

Mexico native Alfredo Nuñez moved to Dalton in 1999 from California because relatives told him there was plenty of work.

Back then, manufacturing jobs were being added at a rate of about 1,000 every year, according to Times Free Press news archives. The influx of Hispanic workers was a boon to local industry in a county where there were more than 62,000 jobs for just 54,000 resident workers and an unemployment rate of less than 2.5 percent.

But that changed.

In 2009, Nuñez, an unauthorized immigrant, was forced to close his Mexican restaurant in part because he had to prove he was in the country legally to renew the business license. He also saw a decrease in customers.

"Everyone was leaving," he said.

His family didn't wait to see the result of Georgia's new law. In January, months before the law was even signed, the family packed their belongings and moved to Cleveland, Tenn., where he said the laws aren't as harsh and the economy is better.

"Dalton had become very dangerous, and I feared for my family," Nuñez said.

Road checks in Whitfield County, and especially in Dalton, where officers ask for a driver's license have led to a lot of fear within the community, he said.

"There were a lot of roadblocks at all times everywhere in the city," Nuñez said.

Illegal immigrants can't get a driver's license in Georgia, which is a finger-printable offense. Once they are booked in the jail and the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office determines they are in the country illegally, the person gets an immigration hold to get deported.

The loss of jobs in the carpet industry combined with tougher immigration enforcement led Maria Jimenez and her family to sell everything they could and move to Minnesota, where she has relatives.

"There's no work and the police are getting very tough with people [in Dalton]," said Jimenez, who is a legal permanent resident but has relatives who are not documented.

Jimenez's husband lost his job at a carpet factory in June and hasn't been able to find employment, she said as she stood in the parking lot of a closed business on East Morris Street in Dalton, while selling a bed, a dresser, jeans, jackets and shoes.

"My husband made $14 an hour. If he goes to any job right now, they want to pay him $7.25," she said as she held her Chihuahua "Tita" in her arms. "What are we going to do with that wage?"

Others, even if they are not legally in the country, have decided to stay.

Jorge Munguia has lived in Dalton since 1999 and hopes to legalize his status soon. He said he knows of a lot of people who have left, but he is willing to wait.

"My job and my family are keeping me here," he said as he left St. Joseph's church.

Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6578. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Perla_Trevizo.