Immigration migrates.

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NOVEMBER 7, 2005

Immigration migrates.

It's 8:30 on a recent Monday morning, and the county-sponsored day-
laborer site in Shirlington, Virginia--a light-industrial
neighborhood just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.--
is bustling. About 60 young Latino men are sipping coffee and
chatting in a small parking lot, along one side of which runs an
open, green-roofed shelter. Every few minutes, a contractor's truck
pulls up and the conversation stops as the men hurry over to see
what sort of work the driver is offering. After a bit of
negotiating, the contractor picks a few men; they hop into the
truck and drive off. The rest return to their coffee.Overseeing the operation is Andres Tobar, a retired Department of
Education employee whose nonprofit, the Shirlington Employment and
Education Center (seec), has a contract with Arlington County to
manage the site. Tobar, a burly man wearing an orange reflective
vest, keeps a tight ship. He holds a lottery each morning for the
first ten jobs, and he encourages the men to buy seec- issued
identification cards. "Our role is to keep these guys here in a
county- designated area," he says. And, since the site's opening
two years ago, it has worked--few locals complain, while both
employers and workers seem to appreciate the stability the set-up
provides in an often chaotic, largely unregulated sector of the
labor force.

Seec's low profile is surprising, given the controversy that has
exploded over a proposal for a similar operation in nearby Herndon,
a Virginia suburb close to Dulles International Airport. The town
council approved the plan earlier this year, but, stoked by
right-wing radio hosts, several residents took the matter to court
(the case is pending). The issue got even hotter when Republican
gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore stepped in, announcing his
opposition to the site. "[The Herndon council is] encouraging
illegal behavior, " he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. And,
boosted by polls showing that Virginians want tougher action
against illegal immigrants, Kilgore is pushing the issue for all
it's worth. Calling illegal immigration a "public-safety
emergency," he has implied that a Northern Virginia Latino gang has
ties to Al Qaeda, trumpeted his past opposition to state-college
access for children of illegal immigrants, and even promised to
"give local police the authority to enforce immigration laws"--a
task normally left to the federal government.

When the Shirlington site opened, illegal immigration barely
registered in the Virginia political consciousness. Today, it is
one of the most important issues--and not just in Virginia. Across
the South, activists have held rallies, distributed flyers, and
organized anti-immigrant watchdog groups. Franchises of the
Minuteman Project, which sprang up in the Southwest late last year,
have opened in Alabama, Tennessee, and Virginia. Most ominously,
the Ku Klux Klan has been increasingly active in northern Alabama
and southeastern Tennessee, using immigration to revive its
white-supremacist message. "There has definitely been a startling
growth in anti-immigrant sentiment," says David Lubell, director of
the Nashville-based Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Coalition. "It had been growing before now, but the fear and
animosity against immigrants hadn't congealed."

Sensing an opportunity, politicians are beefing up their
anti-immigrant credentials, with city councils and state
legislatures in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee offering
plans to crack down on day laborers. And it will likely define many
local, state, and federal elections at the midterm--the
front-runner Republican to replace Tennessee Senator Bill Frist has
already made immigration a key part of his platform. Which is why
the Virginia race-- and the Herndon site--are so important. Once
only an issue in the Southwest, immigration may end up deciding an
election almost 2,000 miles from the border. And, if it does, the
precedent will be set for anti-immigrant demagoguery regionwide.
Which raises the question: How did immigration suddenly become a
marquee political issue in the South?

For much of the twentieth century, the South was defined by
agriculture and low-wage, low-tech industries, mainly textiles. But
that began to change in the 1980s, as state governments lured auto
manufacturers, and then high-tech firms, to the region. At the same
time, native companies, such as Wal-Mart, WorldCom, SBC, and
Wachovia, shot into the Fortune 500. This economic revolution
created hundreds of thousands of high-end jobs, which fueled the
spread of suburbs--the construction of which requires an army of
short-term workers. The job boom also coincided with a remarkable
improvement in education across the region. "The children in rural
areas were opting to go to college," says Loida Velazquez, an
educational psychologist who recently retired from working with
Knoxville-area immigrants through the University of Tennessee. "But
we have a lot of chicken plants, mushroom farms, areas where
workers are needed, and it is not easy work. "

By the mid-'90s, the rapidly modernizing Southern economy was facing
a labor crisis, and Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, began
filling the gap. Between 1990 and 2000, six Southern states saw
their Latino populations, the majority of which are direct
immigrants, increase over 200 percent, according to the Pew
Hispanic Center, with some counties registering more than 1,000
percent growth. "Thanks to `hot' job markets in their construction,
services, manufacturing, and technology sectors, for example,
states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada gained
immigrants--who moved both from within the U.S. and directly from
abroad--at rates not previously witnessed," notes a study by Audrey
Singer, an immigration expert at the Brookings Institution. And,
while it is hard to pin down exact numbers, researchers estimate
that some 80 percent of those immigrants are undocumented.

It wasn't just the sheer number of immigrants that made this
migration different, but where they ended up settling.
Traditionally, immigrant populations have been concentrated in
cities, where they become Americanized and only later move out to
smaller cities or the suburbs. But no one lives in postwar
downtowns like Dallas and Atlanta; they lack the dense urban fabric
that once cradled immigrants, who now head directly to the suburbs,
where housing and jobs are more plentiful. According to Singer's
study, "By 2000, more immigrants in metropolitan areas lived in
suburbs than cities, and their growth rates there exceeded those in
the cities." In doing so, they are intermingling earlier, and more
heavily, with native populations, many of whom, ironically, moved
to the suburbs to get away from the diverse socioeconomics of urban

Predictably, the result has been a backlash, exacerbated by
widespread social and employment insecurity among the region's
newly expanded middle class. Of course, most immigrants are not
competing for the jobs most native workers want to pursue, but they
do fill the manual-labor jobs that natives look to as fallback
positions. Thus, the more insecure a native worker is over his job
at the local car plant, the angrier he will be that immigrants are
taking the jobs just below him. In addition, with deficits booming
and the bills for Iraq and Katrina looming, there is a general
sense that public resources are scarce. And, though largely
unfounded, there is a rising fear that immigrants, legal and
illegal, are draining those resources by swelling the welfare rolls.
Nor is the issue merely economic--despite statistics that show that
immigration tends to be correlated with drops in urban crime,
natives have accused immigrants of increasing crime from loitering,
a common complaint about day laborers, to gang activity. Thanks to
the emphasis on border security after September 11, many also
conflate illegal immigration with terrorism, turning a socioeconomic
issue into a national security threat. "You have illegal aliens
pushing a negative part of their culture on our society," says
George Taplin, a Herndon activist. "We are realizing a new division
in our culture, and people are afraid."

Earlier this year, Taplin, already involved in the battle over the
Herndon day-laborer site, decided to organize a group to promote
his views. Having seen press coverage of the Minuteman
Project--activists who flocked to the U.S.- Mexico border in April
2005 to conduct "citizen patrols" in search of illegal
immigrants--he contacted its organizers and soon set up what he
calls his own "chapter of the Minuteman Project," the Herndon
Minutemen. "The support I get is being part of an overall umbrella,
and I have the resources of their volunteers," he says. "I also get
an incredible amount of media support"--i.e., the network of radio
shows, blogs, and websites that have sprung up around the

Indeed, the immigration backlash in the South has been driven in
part by the rapid spread of anti-illegal immigration
groups--particularly the Minutemen. This spring in Tennessee, for
example, an eastern Tennessee activist named Carl "Two Feathers"
Whitaker contacted David Heppler, who helped found the Minutemen
and now runs Arizona Border Watch, about setting up a franchise. "I
worked with him on some ideas over the phone, then actually went to
Tennessee to meet with him and some other people," says Heppler.
Soon, the Tennessee Volunteer Minutemen were born. The Tennesseans
then helped activists in Alabama and Illinois form branches in
their own states. "One thing the far right has learned is the
importance and strategic value of grassroots organizing," says Abel
Valenzuela, who studies day laborers at ucla.

The result of the movement's spread, immigrant advocates say, has
been to turn what had been a welcoming, if uneasy, local population
in an aggressively anti-immigrant direction. "It was not until
people began coming from outside, like the Minutemen," says
Velazquez. "They found good ground among certain people, and that
has created this reaction."

Granted, it is unfair to stereotype everyone in groups like the
Minutemen as being "far right." Many, at least outwardly, see
immigration as strictly a law- and-order issue and draw a sharp
distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. "Until the laws
are changed, we need to do our best as citizens to uphold the law,"
explains Taplin. But that distinction often gets lost amid
stereotyping and scapegoating. Indeed, one Virginia anti-immigrant
group active against day laborers calls itself the Virginia
Coalition against Terrorism. That rhetoric, in turn, provides an
opening for even more extreme hate groups to gain strength.
"They're adding fuel to the anti-immigrant fire," says Lubell.
"Right now in Tennessee, the level of hate speech that is accepted
is disturbing, and they're trying to make it even more acceptable."
So far, actual violence has been sparse, but it may only be a
matter of time. In August, a South Pittsburg, Tennessee, man pled
guilty to building pipe bombs to kill Haitian and Mexican
immigrants while he was a member of the KKK.

It's no surprise, then, that Kilgore, looking for a wedge issue to
drive suburban voters away from his Democratic opponent, Tim Kaine,
jumped on immigration. Speaking to the Times-Dispatch, Kilgore
said, "It's beginning to be one of the biggest issues in Northern
Virginia when I'm campaigning there. Other than transportation,
people come up to you every time you're there--tons of people--and
ask you about illegal immigration." Larry Sabato, a political
scientist at the University of Virginia, says it will be difficult
to measure the issue's impact until after the election, but
conservative Virginia blogs have gone wild over Kilgore's stance.
As one popular blog, Commonwealth Conservative, noted, "You are
witnessing what could be a turning point in this election. This is
a hot-button issue in Northern Virginia, and it's a stance that is
also extremely popular in rural areas."

Immigrants, after all, make the perfect catchall scapegoat. Want to
explain away massive deficits and give yourself an excuse for not
getting them under control? Blame immigrants drawing on public
coffers. Want to distance yourself from Washington? Blame federal
inaction on immigration reform. Kaine, unwilling to veer too far
from his liberal base, has been forced to sidestep the issue,
saying that the Herndon site is a local issue, while immigration
enforcement writ large is a federal responsibility. The result has
been to reinforce Kilgore's stance as a tough, law-and-order
Republican, which has resonated with Virginia voters.

None of this, of course, is responsible policy-making--that would
require addressing why both legal and illegal immigrants go to
great lengths to get into the country, as well as recognizing that
our economy cannot function without them. But that hasn't stopped
candidates like Van Hilleary, a Tennessee politician running for
Frist's Senate seat, from coming out early and aggressively on
immigration. "I will insist that not only do we return the rule of
law to the border, but that we ensure that those who have broken the
law are not rewarded and granted amnesty," he said in an August
press release--a surprising message from a man whose state lies
1,000 miles from the border. Nor has it stopped countless state and
local politicians across the South from proposing and passing
legislation that restricts access to social services, bans the use
of public funds for day-laborer sites, and forbids the children of
illegal immigrants from going to college. The county commission in
rural Hamblin County, Tennessee, recently sent a symbolic bill to
Congress for the added social and educational expenses it has
incurred thanks to immigration. "Anywhere you have large
concentrations of immigrants, legal and illegal, this issue will be
used," says Sabato. Such grandstanding creates a negative feedback
loop--the more activists push public sentiment, the more
politicians respond, which only further legitimizes public
anti-immigrant sentiment.

Still, many--perhaps even most--Southern politicians have so far
resisted the demagogic pull. Velazquez notes that the mayor of
Knoxville, Bill Haslam, has actively welcomed Latino interest
groups, while others, such as the Herndon town council, have
developed innovative responses to the supply-and-demand realities
of the region's immigration wave. But, as the Virginia governor's
race has shown, the anti-immigrant card will increasingly be
deployed in tight races, especially as Latino immigrants continue
to pour into the region. "The numbers are getting to the point
where immigrants are much more noticeable," says Lubell. "Go to the
supermarket or the movie theater, and you are more likely to see
immigrants, to hear a foreign language. That's strange for a
landlocked state. People forget they were once immigrants, and that
can be sort of disorienting." And it's great news for demagogues as

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