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Atlanta Journal - Constitution

Latino Voices To Invigorate Legislature


August 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved. 

Latino immigration to Georgia gained steam quickly, taking off before many forecasters saw it coming. While there had been a slow but steady rise in immigrants from Mexico, Colombia, Peru and other parts south (as well as an influx of Latinos from California and Texas) to Georgia for 20 years, the numbers soared in the last decade.

Native Spanish-speakers came here largely for the same reasons that so many others came: economic opportunity. Less-skilled workers found jobs in agriculture, poultry plants and textile mills, while professionals came as doctors, lawyers and school teachers.

Now, Latinos are rightly taking their places in Georgia politics. When the General Assembly convenes in January, it will include at least two Latino representatives --- Pedro Marin, a Democrat who was born in Puerto Rico, and David Casas, a Republican of Cuban ancestry. Both men ran for the Georgia House without opposition.

These political newcomers are unlikely to concentrate exclusively on issues of concern to Latino constituents. From both sides of the aisle, they will bring their interests in a number of local concerns, including taxes, education and economic development.

Indeed, Marin and Casas probably will disagree on many issues. As just one example, Marin wants to work on proposals to get driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Casas, by contrast, believes that issue should be resolved by the federal government, not the states, according to MundoHispanico, a Spanish-language newspaper published in Atlanta.

Whatever their politics, the presence of Marin and Casas in the state Legislature will be a welcome affirmation of Georgia's status as a major player in a multicultural New South. Latinos are the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group. Already, they are as significant a presence as African-Americans, who account for about 13 percent of the nation's population. Before the next U.S. Census, Latinos will be a larger ethnic group than blacks.

Marin and Casas will also serve as a reminder of the thousands of legal immigrants who pay their taxes, vote, serve on juries and otherwise contribute to democratic processes. Because controversies about immigration focus almost exclusively on illegal immigrants, some native Georgians tend to forget that there are many legal immigrants among us. (Puerto Ricans, by the way, are citizens of the United States.)

According to the U.S. census, there are an estimated 435,000 Latinos in Georgia, a 300 percent increase over 1990. But illegal immigrants often dodge the census-takers. Some forecasters believe the population of Georgia Latinos, counting legal and illegal residents, is closer to 700,000.

While solving the problem of illegal immigration is definitely a job for the feds rather than the state Legislature, having Latino legislators present for any General Assembly debate on the subject ought to at least raise the level of rational debate. Over the last several years, the Georgia Legislature has been racked by contentious discussions over proposals for English as the official state language, providing bilingual teachers in schools and allowing Latino-owned businesses to participate in state affirmative action programs. Those discussions have occurred without a single Latino voice.

Happily, that will no longer be the case. Whatever Marin and Casas have to say on those subjects, their voices will be appreciated --- adding to the cacophony of interests and philosophies that invigorates democratic institutions.

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