In Immigrant Georgia, New Echoes of an Old History

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Mar 6 14:44:58 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,
March 6, 2006
Editorial Observer

In Immigrant Georgia, New Echoes of an Old History

Savannah, Ga.

The Coke-bottle glasses of hindsight can leave even profound historical
miseries all blurry with sentimentality. That's one way to explain the
Savannah Irish Festival, a two-day celebration of the Great Famine's great
contribution to this lovely Southern city the migration of thousands of
starving laborers who toted barges, lifted bales, dug ditches and cellars,
and put down roots here in the mid-1800's. Their descendants crowded the
Savannah Civic Center for the festival, eating corned-beef sandwiches,
drinking Guinness and applauding the young step dancers who thundered
across the stage, tossing their auburn ringlets. Vendors sold teapots and
cookbooks and those itchy, kitschy sweaters and scarves that have become
the worldwide uniform of warm, fuzzy Irishness. It is hard to imagine a
tubercular immigrant, knee deep in cellar muck, dreaming that his adopted
city would one day commemorate his sacrifice with a party. Unskilled Irish
immigrants were abused and despised back then, chained to a life of
poverty and hard labor that bonded them at least for a little while with
enslaved African-Americans.

The parallels with the present day are too obvious to ignore. Georgia is
undergoing another demographic shift, as Mexican immigrants flock to its
farms, mills, processing plants and cities. The Latino immigrant
population has soared in the last 10 years and exploded in the last 5, to
an estimated 650,000 in a state of nine million. Some experts say the real
immigrant number is double that. At least half of the newcomers are
illegal, unskilled laborers who, like their Irish predecessors, want "any
job, but now." Anti-immigrant groups have taken to calling the state
"Georgiafornia," and have vowed to fight the Latino influx. As Congress
takes up immigration legislation in coming weeks, the Republicans who
control the Georgia Legislature have been way ahead of them, having
already put the issue at the top of their agenda. The leader of the
effort, Senator Chip Rogers, has sponsored a bill he calls "the most
comprehensive illegal-immigration legislation in America." State Senate
Bill 529, the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, seeks to
cut off illegal immigrants from what its backers perceive to be a vast
plundering of taxpayer-financed benefits, like medical care and schooling.

The bill is less ham-fisted than a measure recently passed by the Georgia
House, which would impose a 5 percent surcharge on people wiring money
abroad who could not prove they are here legally. The Senate bill proposes
a strategy of deterrence by bureaucracy. Anyone who hires someone at more
than $600 a year, for example, would not be able to take a business
deduction on a state tax return without verifying the employee's legal
status. The Republicans who control the Georgia Legislature say that
public sentiment is with them and that the time to strike is now. The
bill's opponents acknowledge that S.B. 529 is likely to pass and have
concentrated their efforts on trying to pull as many of its teeth as
possible. Yet, while Georgia is not about to break out the "Kiss Me, I'm
Mexican"  buttons, the current political climate is far different from the
one the Irish newcomers banged up against a century and a half ago. Much
of the state is struggling to find a sensible and humane way to handle the
rising tide of newcomers. Even Senator Rogers's most vocal opponents admit
that on balance, things could be worse. Senator Sam Zamarripa, an Atlanta
Democrat, was able to negotiate with Mr. Rogers to exempt those under 18
from S.B. 529 and to protect access to prenatal care and higher education.

And not everyone here is phobic about living in Georgiafornia. Savannah,
for example, is home to people like Melody Ortiz, a recruiter at Armstrong
Atlantic State University, who travels the state looking for Hispanic
students to apply for scholarships financed by the Goizueta Foundation,
founded by Roberto Goizueta, the former Coca-Cola chief executive. One of
her goals is to get the children of illegal immigrants into higher
education, something an earlier version of Senator Rogers's bill tried
explicitly to deny. Then there is John Newton, editor of La Voz Latina, a
free monthly newspaper that circulates in Georgia and South Carolina, part
shopper, part immigrant manifesto. Mr. Newton, who is not Hispanic,
describes his job as something close to a missionary vocation. "How insane
it is," he writes, "for a nation of aging baby-boomers to vilify a work
force composed, for the most part, of members of the Christian faith, with
strong family values, a willingness to work and a desire to succeed."

Savannah is approaching its biggest celebration of the year, St. Patrick's
Day, when hordes descend on the sidewalks and historic squares, and the
grits and fountains turn green. That celebration, like its New York
counterpart, has become a beer-soaked blowout that has little to do with
any specific immigrant group. But underneath the happy, vague ethnicity of
it all is a rich and tear-soaked history. And anyone who cares to look
around can see the telltale signs of that history repeating itself.

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