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Hispanics Flex New Muscle In Southern U.S.

Elections To Be Historic

Hispanics Flex New Muscle In Southern U.S.

By Paul Simao

June 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Reuters English News Service. All rights reserved.

ATLANTA - In most of the southeastern United States civil rights and ethnic diversity historically have been viewed through a black and white prism, but a fast-growing Hispanic population is threatening to alter the ebb and flow of race relations and rewrite the political agenda in the region.

Like previous generations in California, Florida and Texas, Hispanics in a number of states in the Deep South are for the first time seriously campaigning for seats on school boards, city councils and in state legislatures.

Latino candidates have been emboldened by a heavy influx of Hispanics, primarily Mexicans, who were drawn to the region in the past decade by the promise of good wages at carpet mills, poultry processing plants and construction sites.

An estimated 1 million Hispanics live in Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama, according to U.S. census data for 2000, though most observers agree that the number is far higher when illegal immigrants are counted.

In a handful of counties in Georgia, home to one of the fastest growing Mexican populations in the nation, Hispanics now account for about 20 percent of the population.

"We should not continue to see Georgia as a black and white state anymore," says Pedro Marin, a 44-year-old community activist in the Atlanta area and one of three Hispanics running for election to the state legislature in November.

"It has become much more diverse than that, and we need to open other doors," says Marin, who moved to Georgia from Puerto Rico seven years ago.


Although political newcomers like Marin are going to great lengths to assure voters that they will represent all constituents equally, redressing the problems faced by Hispanics in the region is clearly a factor in seeking office.

Poor access to quality health care, difficulties obtaining government services and towering high school dropout rates are the problems most often cited as barriers to Hispanic prosperity in the southern states.

The plight of Hispanic children in the region was underscored last year when the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research revealed that those attending school in Georgia and Alabama had the worst graduation rates in the nation.

Two out of three Hispanic children in those two states failed to graduate on time with a diploma in 1998, according to the New York-based think tank. Hispanics in neighboring North Carolina and Tennessee fared only marginally better.

Despite those grim statistics, countless numbers of Hispanics in the South shared in the galloping prosperity of the 1990s and were credited by business leaders for helping to pave the way for the region's impressive growth rates.

The fact that a good proportion of them had entered the United States without proper immigration documents, usually crossing the border from Mexico, did not seem to matter much to businesses hungry for workers during the boom.

"There is no question that the economy here would not be as strong if they had not come here. They have made a large contribution," says Remedios Gomez-Arnau, Mexico's consul general in Atlanta.


Prosperity, however, has come with a proviso. Undocumented workers are usually prohibited from owning drivers' licenses, opening bank accounts, obtaining government benefits or applying for college scholarships.

There are an estimated 6.5 million to 8 million immigrants living and working illegally in the United States. Most use false or borrowed social security numbers when applying for jobs or, when an employer is willing, work for cash in hand.

Mexican authorities in states such as Georgia and North Carolina have in some cases successfully persuaded banks and local governments to accept consular-issued documents as identification, though they view such efforts as a stopgap.

In a visit to Washington, D.C. last September, Mexican President Vicente Fox proposed a broader solution, challenging the United States to reach an agreement that would give legal status to more than 3 million Mexicans living without proper visas in the nation.

But anti-immigrant fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks, fears of a prolonged domestic economic slump and lingering resentment over the "Mexicanization" of certain industries and towns helped put the proposal on the backburner.

In Dalton, Georgia, an Appalachian town of 28,000 that bills itself as the "Carpet Capital of the World," some longtime residents fume at the growing dominance of Mexicans, thousands of whom have found work in local carpet mills.

The local newspaper, the Daily Citizen-News, received so many vicious anti-immigrant letters that it decided to stop publishing the most offensive ones.

Interest groups favoring a clampdown on illegal immigration into the United States warn that cultural tensions and social problems will increase as long as federal and state authorities shirk a duty to deport undocumented workers.

"Many people that are coming into this country are making less than $10,000 and have less than an 8th grade education and I think it is a very legitimate fear that we are fostering a growing underclass," says Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative Atlanta-based interest group.

Kent, who describes U.S. immigration policy as "very generous," added that illegal workers were bleeding states of costly services and had become a culturally disruptive presence in some areas.

Elections To Be Historic For Latinos


June 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved.

"Big tent" politics has come to Georgia, and it has a distinctly Latin look.

Two Hispanic candidates from Gwinnett County --- one from each major political party --- will likely take seats in the state House next January, as no one filed to run against either of them. State officials believe they will be Georgia's first Latino state legislators.

And a Norcross lawyer became what Republicans say is the first Hispanic statewide candidate for elected office when she signed up Friday to run for secretary of state.

Even before candidate qualifying closed Friday, state party chairman Ralph Reed was declaring the Republicans' slate for the fall elections the most diverse in Georgia history, with Latinos, blacks, Asians and even a husband-and-wife team signing up to run.

Democratic Party Chairman Calvin Smyre countered that Republicans shouldn't brag about diversity until they start supporting issues important to minority voters.

"We do not preach inclusion, we practice it," said Smyre, a state legislator from Columbus and an African-American.

Still, both parties could gloat over the belief that history was made when teacher David Casas of Lilburn, a Republican, and community activist Pedro "Pete" Marin of Duluth, a Democrat, qualified for state House seats without opposition. Since neither drew opposition, both will be elected barring an unlikely upset by a write-in or third-party candidate.

Each signed up to represent a political district carved out of other, population-bloated districts during last year's legislative redrawing of political boundaries.

That Gwinnett County could put Hispanics into elected office isn't surprising to political leaders, as the metro Atlanta county's Latino population rose from about 9,000 to more than 64,000 during the 1990s. Gwinnett also has the largest group of Hispanic homeowners among metro counties.

Yet neither of the new state House districts has a Hispanic majority. According to 2000 census data, Casas' 68th District is about 13 percent Hispanic, while Marin's 66th District is 30 percent.

Casas, 30, whose family left Cuba for Spain, then came to the United States in 1974, teaches social studies and political science at McEachern High School in Cobb County. When his students asked him why he didn't practice what he preached, he decided to run for office in a conservative, South Gwinnett district.

Along the way, Casas got support from state Reps. Charles Bannister and Gene Callaway, Republicans who used to represent parts of what became the 68th District and are running for re-election in neighboring districts.

"It is necessary for us to give back," said Casas. "This country has been good to us. It's not just our right but our responsibility to be involved in the political process."

Marin, 44, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, is program manager for the Gwinnett Housing Resources Partnership, a nonprofit agency that helps Hispanics find housing.

Marin said he was honored to make history with Casas.

"The faces of the community are changing. We need to be aware of that and cater to those needs," he said. "What we want to do is open that door for other people to join us."

Both were quick to say their candidacy isn't just about their ethnicity.

"I don't think my candidacy or Pedro's candidacy is a way to get the Latino agenda through," Casas said. "We're here to show our section of the community is ready to contribute."

Also Friday, Vernadette Ramirez Broyles, 37, a Norcross attorney, filed to run for secretary of state. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she has been an assistant district attorney in Fulton County and is a national spokeswoman for President Bush's "faith-based initiative," which would give religious groups greater access to federal funds to deliver social services to the poor.

"I am incredibly proud and honored to be party of a historic day," Ramirez Broyles said. "This is not tokenism. It's clear I'd be qualified, no matter my heritage."

Ramirez Broyles faces two Republican contenders, Charlie Bailey and Jerry Wyatt. The winner of the GOP primary will go up against Democratic incumbent Cathy Cox or challenger David Mays in the general election.

The state doesn't keep records on the ethnicity or race of lawmakers. Because of that, the secretary of state's office could not verify for certain that Georgia has never had a Latino legislator. However, political experts, longtime lawmakers and Hispanic and political party leaders all said the presumed election of Casas and Marin would be a first.

Smyre said Democrats considered the growth in the Hispanic population in areas like Gwinnett during redistricting when they divided up districts along largely partisan lines. "We had a very aggressive recruitment apparatus," he said. "The Latino community is becoming very prominent on our political radar. It is going to continue to grow."

Reed, speaking to reporters as Ramirez Broyles filed in the House chambers, was clearly pleased to present a more diverse slate than the heavily white male group of candidates the Georgia GOP typically fields.

"We have a stable of candidates that embraces the full diversity of Georgia," he said. "I think it's a landmark day, not only for the party, but for the state."

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