Local News

June 8, 2011

Latino concerns

Mayor meets with Hispanic community

Fear. Anxiety. Concern.

Those were just a few of the emotions many speakers expressed Tuesday night at a meeting hosted by the Coalition of Latino Leaders (CLILA) at its headquarters on Morris Street.

Around 100 people, mostly members of Dalton’s Hispanic community, met with Mayor David Pennington and officials from the Dalton Police Department. The meeting was sparked by a concern about roadblock check points conducted by the police department, but the discussion ranged over a number of topics related to the state’s new immigration law and how it is already having an impact on the local Hispanic community.

The Rev. Gilbardo Guerrero, pastor of Dalton’s World Friendship Church, said his church once had almost 600 members but now has less than half that.

He said the numbers began to drop after the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office adopted the 287(g) program three years ago, which allows the sheriff’s office to determine if people who are booked into the jail are in the country illegally.

But he says the numbers leaving have really jumped in just the last few weeks, after the General Assembly passed a new law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. That law, among other things, requires employers to take part in a federal program that helps determine if new hires are legally allowed to work in the United States.

“I’ve got people moving to Chattanooga. I’ve got people moving to Cleveland (Tenn.),” he said. “They were just waiting for the kids to finish their school year.”

Several speakers said that the policies are breaking up families.

Leslie, a 13-year-old girl, spoke of how her mother was stopped at a roadblock and when police saw she didn’t have a license they took her to jail where they determined she was an illegal alien and turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Under a new interpretation of Georgia law handed down by the state attorney general’s office earlier this year, those found driving without a license must now be taken into custody and fingerprinted. That means that, in Whitfield County, illegal aliens caught driving without a license could be deported.

Spencer Zeiger, a professor at Dalton State College, said he has two sons adopted from Honduras and one of them was recently stopped by law enforcement. Zeiger said that his son was held by the side of the road for around an hour while officials tried to determine whether he was an illegal alien.

“There’s nothing illegal about him. He’s lived in this country for 26 years. He speaks English. He doesn’t speak Spanish, but he’s got dark skin,” he said.

Zeiger praised the mayor and other officials for meeting with the group.

“But I still had one question that was unanswered. If I’m driving and the police stop me for, say, a busted taillight. If one of my sons is with me, do they have a right to detain him?” he asked.

Pennington said he sympathized with many of the concerns expressed by the audience. He also said he did not support the immigration law that the General Assembly passed earlier this year.

He said that for close to 20 years, when the American economy was running hot, state and local officials turned a blind eye to illegal immigration, happy to have the cheap labor those immigrants provided.

“Now the economy has slowed down, and our leaders in Washington and Atlanta really don’t have any good answers,” Pennington said. “They are doing things to deflect people’s attention from what they are really concerned about which is their jobs.”

CLILA President America Gruner presented Pennington with a list of questions about roadblocks conducted by the city police, including how they decide where to place them and how many serious offenders they catch.

Statistics provided by the Dalton Police Department show that, so far this year, Hispanics account for 10.49 percent of citations issued by the department. But those numbers include regular traffic enforcement as well as roadblocks. Hispanics account for 47.97 percent of the city’s population. Non-Hispanic whites account for 73.3 percent of citations, while making up 42.43 percent of Dalton’s population.

Pennington vowed to get answers to Gruner’s questions, including data going back several years, and meet with the group in a couple of weeks.

But he said he also had a message they might not like to hear.

“Don’t drive without a license. Whether you are here legally or illegally, Latino, Anglo or African-American, there’s no excuse to drive without a license,” he said. “And if you are driving without a license you are also probably driving without insurance. You have a responsibility, if you are in an accident, to be responsible to any damages you might cause and you have to have insurance.”

Text Only
Local News