Presented at the JSRI People on the Move Conference on November 3, 2009
By Manuel A. Vásquez, Ph.D., University of Florida
Following the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which regularized the legal status of close to 3 million of undocumented Latin American immigrants, the cartography of Latino presence in the United States has undergone a radical transformation. Latino communities in traditional destinations in the Northeast and West, such as New York, New Jersey, California, and Texas, have continued to grow, particularly in major urban centers like New York City, Los Angeles, and Houston, However, the fastest growth in Latino population has taken place in “new destinations” in the South and Midwest.
Between 1990 and 2000, the Latino population grew in all regions of the country. However, Midwestern states registered the highest rate of growth (81 percent), followed by the South (71.2 percent). By 2000, 8.9 percent of Latino families in the country resided in the Midwest, up from 7.7 percent in 1990. The change in the South was even more dramatic. From 1990 to 2000, the South’s share of U.S. Latino households grew from 30.3 to 32.8 percent, reflecting the fact that the Latino population in the region doubled from 1990 to 2000, from 2.4 million to 4.9 million. In fact, Latinos accounted for close to 23 percent of the 11 million persons added to the population in the South (Saenz et al., 2003).
As Figure 1 shows, seven of the ten states which witnessed the fastest rates of Latino growth during the decade of the 1990s, are located in the South. More specifically, the Latino population in North Carolina grew close to 400 percent, followed by those in Arkansas (337 percent), Georgia (300 percent), and Tennessee (278 percent). The hyper-growth of Latino communities in the South is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that during the same decade the average nationwide growth of the Latino population was only 58 percent.
The causes of the changing patterns of Latino settlement are complex and diverse. Firstly, the legalization of a large number of immigrants following IRCA led to a saturation of the job market in traditional destinations. Many immigrants made use of their newly found freedom to move legally and sought jobs and cheaper housing in areas of the country that were experiencing rapid economic growth. The implementation of IRCA also brought increased enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border, with the effect of “deflecting” immigrant flows away from traditional points of entry, further contributing to the dispersion of the Latino population (Massey, Durand, and Malone, 2002). The effects of IRCA coincided with the emergence of the South as a new pole of economic development during the 1990s. During this decade, Southeastern states outpaced the national average of annual growth rates in both personal income (6.0 percent versus 5.6 percent) and employment (2.2 percent versus 1.8 percent).
Economic expansion in the South has been the direct result of the region’s insertion in global capitalism. A growing number of transnational corporations, such as CNN, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Daimler-Benz, Toyota, Wal-Mart, and Fed-Ex, have located their headquarters or production plants in the region. These corporations operate through post-industrial forms of production that attracts more than just highly-skilled and high-income professional and managerial class. The new industrial models also depend on a vast low-skilled force, often hired in temporary and precarious arrangements, to support the housing, consumption, and lifestyle requirements of the professional class. Although there has been some migration of highly-skilled industrial workers from Latin America, the great majority of Latino immigrants have joined the flexible unskilled labor pool. Many work in construction, dry walling and roofing companies, landscaping firms, hotels, restaurants and manufacturing plants, not only in cities such as Atlanta and Raleigh, but also in Birmingham, Huntsville, Memphis, and Little Rock.
In the South, one of the sectors of the economy that experienced massive restructuring during the acceleration of Latino immigration to the region in the 1990s was agriculture and food production. Responding to a growing demand for cheap meat, producers not only consolidated through corporate mergers but also moved their operations to non-metropolitan areas, in order to be close to raw materials, receive special land deals and tax breaks, and have access to a non-unionized labor force. The South afforded one the best environments for this move. Relocation was accompanied by changes in the assembly line that rendered it faster and more labor-intensive. The meat industry often involves dangerous work conditions for laborers, particularly on the “kill floor,” where carcasses are carved and sectioned into pre-determined portions. Because of high labor turnover, the new processing plants continuously need new workers, many of them Latinos (Stull, Broadway, & Griffith, 1995).
Despite the hazardous conditions, meatpacking jobs are relatively well-paid in comparison to work harvesting crops. This, plus access to inexpensive housing and the possibility of raising their children away from the violence, crime, and deficient schools in big cities, proved attractive to many Latino immigrants. Agricultural and food conglomerates understood these circumstances and undertook aggressive recruitment in the countries of origin (Krissman, 2000). As a result, in 1980 only 8.5 percent of the meat processing work force was Hispanic but, by 2000, this number had grown to 28.5 percent. 82 percent of Hispanics working in this industry are foreign-born (Kandel and Parrado, 2005).
A Tale of Two Cities I: Atlanta
For the last four years, I have been conducting field work with an interdisciplinary team of researchers in Georgia, a state that exemplifies all the recent trends characterizing Latino immigration and labor. Between 1990 and 2000, the Latino population in Hall County, where Gainesville, the self-described “poultry capital of the world,” is located, grew by 657 percent. By 2004 Hispanics comprised 24.1 percent of Gainesville’s population. The fastest rates of Latino growth in Georgia in the past decade took place in the northwest corner of the state, in counties with an expanding manufacturing sector anchored on the production of carpeting and flooring materials that sustained the construction boom of the 1990s. For example, Murray County, home of World Carpets Inc. and Aladdin Manufacturing Corps, experienced a 1,375 percent increase in the Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000.
As the emerging global city of the South, Atlanta has also witnessed a rapid influx of Latino immigrants. Between 1980 and 2000, the Latino population in the city grew by 995 percent. In contrast, the Latino population in established areas such as Miami, Los Angeles, and New York grew only by 123, 105, and 60 percent respectively. The growth of the Latino community in Atlanta accelerated dramatically in the years preceding the 1996 Olympics, as Latinos arrived to build the necessary infrastructure. As the city entered the global stage as the flagship of a “New South,” large numbers of African-Americans and Euro-Americans moved to Atlanta, particularly to the northern suburbs, where they could afford larger houses. This construction boom, which has slowed down only in the last two years, attracted many Latino immigrants from traditional destinations like California, Texas, and New York. As a result, in the main northern suburbs of Cobb, Cherokee, and Gwinnett counties, the Latino population has grown by 422, 627, and 657 percent respectively.
The explosive growth in metro Atlanta’s Latino population has helped reshape racial relations in a city long defined by the white-black divide. In the face of the failure of the federal government to pass a comprehensive, rational, and humane immigration reform, this explosive growth has also triggered a strong local reaction. Starting on July 1, 2007, the state began to implement SB 529, the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act. In the wake of this law, Latino immigrants in Georgia, both documented and undocumented, have reported a generalized climate of fear and uncertainty (Lovato, 2008). Among other things, this law empowers the local police to check the legal status of any suspicious person and to report any undocumented person directly to ICE (Immigration & Costumes Enforcement).
Many Latinos we have interviewed told us stories of police officers hiding by traffic lights, waiting for any Latino-looking individual to make small mistakes, such as going slightly over the speed limit or not putting on the turn signal when switching lanes, so they can stop drivers and check papers. Our informants also tell us of the fear they have driving without a license, which is impossible for an undocumented immigrants to secure under the new law. Without a license, a simple fender-bender can result in spending days in a local jail and even deportation. The children of undocumented immigrants, who often are U.S. citizens, can only stand by. Many informants tell us now that they go out only to do what is necessary to survive: they leave home to go to work, or for a quick trip to the store, or to pick up kids from school, or maybe to go to church, where they feel a small measure of safety. Others have told us that they have made legal arrangements with relatives and friend for their U.S.-born children to be taken care of in case they get arrested and deported.
The situation in Georgia is not unusual. A growing number of states throughout the South have approved their own legislation to restrict undocumented immigration. For instance, in 2007 Oklahoma made sheltering or transporting undocumented immigrants a felony, while Mississippi passed new law making it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job. Altogether, in 2007, 1,562 bills related to immigration were introduced nationwide, and 240 were enacted in 46 states, triple the number passed in 2006. And just in the first half of 2009, over 1400 bills were introduced nationwide.
Beyond the climate of fear, passage of SB 529 in Georgia has complicated the already tense relationship between Latinos and African-Americans. Our study sought to gauge this relationship through a survey and focus groups inquiring into attitudes toward immigrants. In general terms, we found that African-Americans empathize with the difficult situation that many Latino immigrants are facing. When we asked African-American men in our focus groups with what group they feel they have the most in common, they invariably responded: “Latinos. They're hard working. They're trying to get where we were at one time. They're trying to get at the bottom of it. We're still there, but they're trying to come up through the same things we went through.” Another informant added: “I think they're in the same boat as we are. . . . They are the brokest.”
Many African-Americans not only understand the plight of Latino immigrants but also admire their willingness to organize for their cause. Referring to the massive marches in 2006 advocating for immigration reform, one African-American man observed that “Newt Gingrich used to say that Dr. King is dead, so marching don’t work any more. Yes, it does. That’s the only thing that works. They [Latinos] showed unity. We don’t show unity anymore. Mexicans show unity.” Other African-American residents of Atlanta, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement, however, are more ambivalent about comparing immigrant marches with those led by Dr. King. One African-American man commented: “I think they [immigrants] ought to be unified legally, though. The system should not let them unify and let them stay. They should ship their ass home.” Yet another told us: “I don’t appreciate the march myself for the simple reason . . . you have a lot of illegal aliens in there, and they are protesting something that we went through the trenches for. We got beat up, lanced and everything to get these civil rights.”
Latinos, for their part, can show a lack of appreciation of the destructive legacy of slavery, segregation, and persistent racism and of the transformational struggles African-Americans have fought. A young Latino man told us:
“Especially in the south, they [African Americans] still bring up the past as far as 1800s. I know it was a troubling time for their people and stuff like that. This is 2000. That, they probably have great-great-great grandmother that was in those times, but this is – and I know it was in the 1900s, as well, but I’m talking about slavery. They still talk about slavery like it was yesterday, or they still talk about the Civil Rights like it was yesterday. I understand what happened. We got oppressed, as well, in the 30s and 40s, especially in California and down that way, but when I was in California, we didn’t talk about that.”
There is an urgent need for Latino and African-American communities to understand each other’s histories, struggles, needs, and aspirations. This dialogue is all the more important in the South, where racial tensions and inequalities persist. Unfortunately, this dialogue is not yet taking place and, as a result, the media has come to frame the issue only as a competition between minorities.
A Tale of Two Cities II: New Orleans
While my research team did not study New Orleans, it is important to discuss the dynamics of Latino immigration in the city, which provides a powerful counter-point to the dynamics taking place is other cities in the South, such as Atlanta. The widespread devastation and dislocation produced in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina is a reality sui generis, producing a population shift that has few parallels in U.S. history. In what follows, I will summarize some the key findings of the emerging literature on Latinos in New Orleans.
Immigration from Latin America to New Orleans is not new. In fact, there were two relatively established Pre-Katrina Latino communities. One consists of Nicaraguans who came to the city as early as 1905, following the establishment of the Louisiana Nicaragua Lumber Company in the city. The other is composed of Hondurans who arrived starting in the 1920s, through connections with the United Fruit Company, which has been based in New Orleans since 1901. The Nicaraguan community expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, as two new waves of immigration came, one as a reaction to the Sandinista Revolution (1979) and another in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
The 2000 census reported 15,000 Latinos in New Orleans, about 3.1 percent of the city’s population (485,000). Most scholars agree that the census severely under-counted the New Orleans’s Latino population (Donato et al., 2007). In the aftermath of Katrina, The Times Picayune estimated that approximately 100,000 Hispanics came to hurricane-affected communities in the span of 4 months after Katrina. By 2007, the city’s Latino population increased by 45 percent, while the African-American population decreased by 10 percent (Lee et al., 2008). Sociologist Elizabeth Fussell, who has conducted the most detailed and rigorous studies of the Latino influx into the city, estimates that 9.6 percent of Orleans parish is now Latino.
Who are these new Latinos in New Orleans? Fussell uses the term “Hurricane Chasers” to describe them, since they are a mobile “rapid response labor force” that came to fill the growing demand in the construction sector, as the city began to rebuild. 44 percent of the immigrants that Fussell surveyed were Mexicans, 21 percent Brazilians, 14 percent Hondurans, 12 percent Guatemalans, and 7 percent Salvadorans. She also found that these five national Latino groups exhibit significant commonalities: they tend to be “younger, more often single, and less embedded in a social network than other immigrants” (Fussell, 2009a and b). However, Fussell also found important differences among these groups, as reflected in Table 1
While there are many differences worth highlighting in Fussell’s data, Brazilians are the group that best embodies the “rapid response” labor force label. They are younger and more likely to be single men than both Mexicans and Central Americans, who are more likely to use their long-standing community networks in the region and the New Orleans to bring their families. This is particularly the case for Central Americas: they are far more likely than the other two groups to have siblings who are also migrants. The duration of the Brazilians’ current trip is also much shorter, this may be because a more than one third of these immigrants have their work papers. Thus, they have more flexibility to move in response to changes in the job market. The fact that a greater proportion of Brazilians are authorized to work, together with their higher levels of education, may explain why they earn far more than Mexican and Central Americans. Fussell also hypothesizes that Central Americans and Mexicans often rely on established networks to secure employment, a fact that may limit their job prospects. In contrast, Brazilians operate for all intents and purposes as their own contractors. As Fussell (2009a: 389) put it, Brazilians (and Mexicans to some extent) are “more likely to be unencumbered by ties to any pre-Katrina New Orleans conationals.” This “freedom” from the moral and financial obligations that accompany ethnic labor networks enables them to look for better paying jobs.
The Latino community in New Orleans has not only grown rapidly but is also becoming highly differentiated. The big question now is whether the “hurricane chasers” will settle permanently in the city. This is a crucial issue, in light of the shifting racial configuration in post-Katrina New Orleans. The changing racial composition of the city may be what was behind Mayor Ray Nagin’s desire, expressed in October 2005, to keep the city from being “overrun with Mexican workers.” A few months later, in January 2006, Nagin asserted that New Orleans should remain a “chocolate city.” While many Hispanic groups criticized Nagin’s comments, some believed that the mayor reflected more widespread sentiments among New Orleans residents.
The results of Fussell’s survey in Table 2 give us a sense of the future of the Latino presence in the Crescent City.
The majority of Nicaraguans and Brazilians say that they intend to stay in New Orleans for more than a year or permanently. Here the contrast with Mexicans may reflect the proximity of their home country, which makes it somewhat easier to go back and forth. The scholarly literature tells us that the longer immigrant single men stay in a particular place, the more likely they are to bring their families from their countries of origins or to form new ones. Thus, the future of the Latino community in New Orleans will depend on the sustained availability of jobs as the city’s reconstruction continues in the midst of a national economic recession.
Religion and Latinos in the South
Religious congregations in New Orleans face a difficult task: how to minister to an increasingly heterogeneous Latino population that includes sojourners and hurricane chasers as well as long-term immigrants who are embedded in established networks. While hurricane chaser may not have the time to engage in religious activities, since they are in New Orleans to work as much as possible, they have needs that often only religious organization can address. A case and point is the widespread wage theft that many undocumented day laborers suffer (Allen 2009). Since they cannot rely on a state government that depends on their cheap labor but seeks to deport them, these immigrants must seek out organizations in civil society that they trust. It is a well-known fact that churches are among the most trusted institutions in civil society in Latin America.
Our work in Atlanta has demonstrated that in new destinations in the South, where there is no recent history of immigration, congregations play a crucial role in helping Latino immigrants negotiate the challenges of settlement in and integration into the society of reception. It is no secret that among the first things that Latino immigrants create as when they come to a new place are churches, restaurants, groceries stores, and soccer leagues. The powerful triad of religion, food, and recreation very often provides the protective spaces for collective encounter, intimacy, and solidarity.
Given the fact that religion plays a central role in the lives of Latino immigrants and African-Americans, congregations can also serve as inter-racial and inter-cultural bridges, allowing the two communities to learn from one another face-to-face. This is a dialogue that must take place to move beyond destructive and polarizing polemics and humanize the debate on immigration.
As in Atlanta, Latinos and African-Americans in New Orleans share common experiences of discrimination and economic and political disempowerment. For example, a recent Oxfam study found that roughly the same percentage of Latinos and African-Americans agree that affordable housing, access to health care, and fair treatment by the criminal system are very important needs for their communities. These issues can serve as points of departure to engage in dialogue and eventually to build strategic allegiances. The Oxfam report also found that 88 percent of African-Americans and 77 percent of Latinos “strongly or somewhat strongly agreed” that the two groups “can put aside their difference and work together on jobs.” Further, 83 percent of African-Americans and 86 percent of Latinos responded that they consider establishing “alliances to achieve social and economic equity” very or somewhat important. The willingness to work together is, however, curtailed by language barriers, lack of common spaces of socialization, and lack of trust. It is no wonder, then, that “86 percent of the African-Americans and 83 percent of the Latinos said the church is a “very [or] somewhat effective” institution to host a dialogue and to improve African-American and Latino relations” (Lee et al., 2008: 6). Religious congregations, as spaces of that combine powerful and emotive face-to-face encounter with effective social advocacy, will thus have to play a protagonist role as the racial dynamics in the South move from a bipolar black-white framework to one that is multipolar, including immigrant communities from Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
Allen, Greg. 2009. “New Orleans: A Day's Work Doesn't Mean A Day's Pay.” National Public Radio: All Things Considered. August 28.
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