June 20, 2011

An uncertain future: Illegal immigrants in Dalton face a choice: Stay or move

Jamie Jones

— Jose Luis Hernandez is like many Daltonians.

Most of his family — brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins and even grandchildren — also call Dalton home. Hernandez has lived here for 13 years.

He has a steady job working construction. Before that he worked in local carpet mills.

Hernandez frequents the abundant shops along East Morris Street, supporting a slumping economy hit by sky-high unemployment.

For the past 10 years, he’s paid a mortgage on his home.

There’s a glaring difference, however, between Hernandez and most Dalton residents: He is an illegal immigrant.

Days before Georgia’s new immigration law — the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011 — goes into effect on July 1, Hernandez fears his comfortable life in Dalton could end as quickly as the snap of handcuffs. But his concern is not focused solely on himself. He worries how the law will impact Hispanics here, the entire Dalton community and most importantly, his children.

“That is who it will affect the most,” Hernandez said through an interpreter while shopping at a Hispanic-owned bakery in East Dalton. “My son has a son born here. Imagine if they grab my son and take him. The law is also going to affect business people, banks. Many people buy homes without documents and carry on for more than eight, 10 or 12 years now paying the house and they are going to leave, and that will be the government left to deal with all that.”

The state Legislature overwhelmingly passed House Bill 87 last session. Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill on May 13, saying there is “no better way to promote the quality of life of all who live here and no better way to protect taxpayers than upholding the rule of law.”

The law increases sanctions for businesses employing illegal immigrants, empowers law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of people they arrest, stiffens penalties for using fake identification to get a job and makes transporting or harboring illegal immigrants while committing a crime illegal.

There’s no place like home — but for how long?

Anxiety and trepidation are being felt by local Hispanics — whether they are here legally or illegally.

Some Hispanics are fleeing Dalton to what they perceive as safer hamlets in Chattanooga and Cleveland in Tennessee, a state where immigration laws aren’t viewed as being as tough as they will be in Georgia under the new law.

Some Hispanics have returned to their native country.

But many Hispanics are simply staying home — in Dalton — and risking being stopped by law enforcement, arrested and deported.

If a large number of Hispanics leave Whitfield County, the area could feel the impact.

Figures from the 2010 Census show the Hispanic population has exploded in Whitfield County, rising to 32,471 in 2010 from 18,417 in 2000. The county’s total population is 102,599, up from 83,525 in 2000. In Dalton, the Hispanic population rose to 15,891 in 2010 from 11,211 in 2000. Dalton’s population in 2010 was 33,128.

Whether there will be an exodus of Hispanics from the area is unknown, but many are considering difficult decisions.

Take Ramon Rosas. A native of Mexico, Rosas has lived in Dalton for more than eight years with his wife and two children. The immigration law has brought about much fear and confusion in the Hispanic community, he said. Rosas has found a true home in Dalton, pays taxes and wants to stay, he said, but worries about the impact of the law.

“My wife tells me we’re going to another state but I do not want to, at least for now,” Rosas said. “Dalton has been my home for nearly a decade and home to my children.”

On the opposite end is Angel Silva, the owner of Frontera Income Tax and a U.S. citizen. He has lived in Dalton for 10 years and has no plans to leave. He moved to Dalton from El Paso, Texas, to pursue job opportunities and also for the climate.

“I love this environment,” Silva said. “It’s cooler than Texas.”

Silva hears the concerns from Hispanics almost daily at his East Morris Street business. Since the governor signed the immigration bill he has seen a “huge growth” in the number of illegal immigrants seeking power of attorney letters for temporary guardianship of their children — legal citizens born in the U.S. — in case a parent is deported or jailed. Others are seeking permits so they can take their vehicles home to a native country.

“The biggest concern is about their children,” Silva said. “If something happens to them as parents, what would happen to their children? Some of them have children who were born here in the United States and they’ve lived here all of their lives and they’re going to school. Therefore, they want to proceed with a future here in the United States and so their concern is what’s going to happen to the children.”

He also said there is confusion surrounding the new law. Taxi drivers are worried that if they pick up a fare who is here illegally they could be subject to arrest for harboring or transporting an illegal immigrant.

“I think it’s something that’s ridiculous to me because I don’t choose my friends based on whether they have papers or not,” Silva said. “Simply, I’ve been taught to choose my friends as they respect me and I respect them as well. These are individuals that I don’t know if they are undocumented or if they’re legal. To me, everybody’s created equal as to how it is in our Constitution.”

Fear and loathing in Dalton

For many Hispanics, driving without a license can be a nightmare, whether being stopped by an officer or going through a roadblock.

Jose Luis Pineda has lived in Dalton for 16 years and has two children, ages 9 and 18. He expressed disappointment with the politicians for passing the immigration law. He also fears police will target him for being Hispanic.

“I’m scared that my skin color, the police stop me,” Pineda said. “They focus on nothing but dark-colored people (Hispanics).”

Silva understands the need for verifying identities of people. He thinks police roadblocks are a “good idea” to keep people safe and ensure drivers have licenses and insurance. But he worries that roadblocks in Dalton are being held in predominantly Hispanic parts of town, which local law enforcement officials deny.

He does believe racial profiling will increase once the law goes into effect.

Cristian Rico Peña, 25, avoids these possible problematic situations by riding a bicycle around town. For the past year he has ridden his bicycle to work, to the store, home.

 “This law is very hard,” Peña said. “I have guys who will lose their houses, who are going to go to other states or return to Mexico. I will see what happens if you cannot walk or bike. I may move to another state. I fear that a cop can stop me. There are good cops and bad cops. If I have a bad one, he will ask for my papers, and maybe he will deport me.”

He also worries he won’t have a job to ride to at the East Dalton car repair shop. Work has slowed considerably since the immigration law was signed. Peña said many Hispanics have already left town. Because of fewer people bringing in their vehicles, his boss may have to lay off an employee.

Working alongside Peña is Madrano Alejandro. He has also seen fewer Hispanics frequenting the family-owned stores along East Morris Street. Madrano has two children: a girl, 2, and a boy, 12. The family plans to stay in Dalton because he has family here, including five siblings.

Back at the bakery, Hernandez responds to a final question from a reporter: “Are you afraid that the police will stop you when you’re driving or walking down the road?”

He bristles.

“I have not killed, I have not stolen, I come to work and since I have lived here 13 years I have not missed work, I have done my taxes as an illegal person,” Hernandez said.

Expected stories in “An Uncertain Future”:

Sunday, June 19: Questions surround the state’s new immigration law.

Today: Illegal immigrants in Dalton face a choice: Stay or move.

Tuesday: The law enforcement perspective.

Thursday: A recent area high graduate who was born in Mexico but has lived here since childhood faces the prospect of deportation.

Sunday, June 26: Are people fleeing the area because of the new law?