Immigration migrates.

by Clay Risen | November 7, 2005

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 America. 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 movement. 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 well.

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