How immigration roils tiny Georgian town

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This is carpet country, home to the largest concentration of carpeting factories in the world. It is a place of abundant jobs and affordable housing--magnets for a growing population of Latino immigrants that some longtime residents see as a threat to their way of life.

Calhoun's 13,000 people are mostly working-class whites. But now nearly one out of six residents is from another country. Some whites see immigrants, legal or not, as unfair contenders in the competition for coveted jobs they have held for generations at the carpet mills. For the most part, they have accepted the changing demographics with apprehension, much as they reluctantly took to forced integration with African-Americans in the 1960s.

"[Immigrants] are hard-working people, but if they come to our country, the least they can do is learn to speak English," said William Crowder, 71, a retired factory worker who has lived in Calhoun for 30 years. "I'm too old to learn Spanish."

This city nestled in the rural foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains halfway between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., was thrust this week into the middle of the national battle over undocumented workers. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a class-action lawsuit by one current and three former workers at Calhoun's largest employer, Mohawk Industries. The employees claimed that the firm has kept wages low for all employees by recruiting hundreds of undocumented laborers.

Center of critical debate

Most of the residents show little awareness that they are at the center of a critical debate. But the Supreme Court decision expected this summer could change life as they have known it in Calhoun for 15 years and help establish policies regarding the hiring of undocumented workers throughout America.

What they do know is simple. A sleepy town that was once dying along with the rest of the textile industry in the South found a way to survive. Its highways are now lined with factories, but to some, the price of prosperity is way too high. Latin grocery stores and Mexican restaurants are popping up everywhere, their schools are overcrowded, and suddenly people who have always taken pride in their American heritage fear they are expected to become bilingual.

Since 1990, the Hispanic population in Gordon County has rocketed from 1 percent to 12 percent. Crowder, like many residents, believes that those who are in the country illegally should be sent back to where they came from. They mean Mexico, though Calhoun has almost as many Central Americans, including people from Guatemala and El Salvador.

Crowder's wife, Betty, 71, said she has no problems with immigrants. She hates the phrase "illegal alien" because it makes them sound like they are from another planet. But not everyone in town, or in her own family for that matter, feels that way.

"I have one grandson who said he would quit a job before working with them," she said. "You won't find many people in Calhoun who don't hate Mexicans. A lot of people feel their jobs are being taken away by Mexicans but feel like they are coming here to do jobs that other people won't do, the low bottom jobs.

"But we can't make them all legal. We can't take everybody in," she added.

In many ways, the residents are typical of those across America who want Congress to do something about the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent said people who are in the U.S. illegally should be required to go home, while 40 percent said they should be granted some kind of legal status that allows them to stay here.

"We can't just grandfather people in. If they can't get the necessary documentation, they should be deported," said Ricky Rouse, 47, a laborer for the city.

Mayor Jimmy Palmer insists there have been no major problems between whites and Latinos. But he said the immigrant influx has had a tremendous impact on the schools, housing, infrastructure and the police department. The police recently joined a task force with other law-enforcement agencies in North Georgia to target gangs and violent crimes.

"There are a few cultural differences, and we address those," he said. "We are pleased to have them in the community, and they have adjusted pretty well."

History of intolerance

For many residents in Calhoun, founded after the government forced the Cherokee Indians off the land in 1835 to travel a Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, the so-called browning of America is frightening. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, many people have become wary of immigrants. Residents insist that crime has risen along with the influx of immigrants. Latino advocates said police routinely set up roadblocks in the city targeting Hispanics.

"There is a history here of racial intolerance, beginning with the Trail of Tears," said Pastor Stephen Edwards, coordinator of ethnic ministries for the Gordon County and Memorial Baptist Associations in Calhoun. "We have a lot of well-meaning people who are in a moral dilemma right now, and let's not pretend, we've got some out-and-out racism going on too."

On Wednesday, Griselda, 23, a Guatemalan immigrant, sat in a grocery store with a small restaurant in the back. She and Ramona, 36, a Mexican who opened the restaurant last year after selling tacos at her house, talked about fear in the community, especially among illegal immigrants. Both asked that their last names not be used.

"What is the problem with the white people?" Griselda asked in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter. "There are so many of us, are they afraid we are going to do to them what they did to the Indians? We look like the Native Americans. Is that why they want us to leave?"

Roberta Warmack, founder of Calhoun's Latinos for Education and Justice organization, said many residents are not ashamed to let immigrants know they are not welcome.

"They say the Latinos don't want to learn English, that they are loud and they don't like their Latin culture, but they love their Latin food," Warmack said. "It's sad because we are all human, and if the Latino community went away, the economy here would come crashing down."

Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, said that while some Southern states experienced a culture clash, it was not all bad.

"In this part of the country, Hispanic immigrants don't have the option of blending into a predominantly Hispanic culture. This mitigating fear that they are congregating in linguistic ghettos is not happening. They are learning to live alongside Americans in all parts of the country," he said.

The legal battle over undocumented workers at Mohawk, which employs 32,000 workers, including about 4,000 in Calhoun and Gordon County, could have a large impact on Calhoun.

The high court must decide whether companies believed to knowingly hire illegal immigrants can be sued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, or RICO law, designed to target organized crime. In 1996 Congress expanded the law to include immigration violations. Mohawk has denied intentionally hiring illegal workers.

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dglanton@tribune.com

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