Hispanic Immigration Boom Rattles South
Rapid Influx To Some Areas Raises Tensions
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
SILER CITY, N.C.—This small rural town in the center of the state has
25 churches, 18 police officers, 12 doctors, 4 dentists, 2
poultry-processing plants--and a population of 5,500 that has undergone
such dramatic change in the last few years that longtime residents can
scarcely grasp what has happened.
One indication is the sign in Spanish outside the local hospital: "Entrada,
entrance." Another is the student body--more than 40 percent Hispanic--at
Siler City Elementary School. At the two poultry plants, at least 80 percent
of the workers cutting up chickens are fairly recent arrivals from Mexico,
Nicaragua and other countries.
As the 2000 census is sure to confirm, the Hispanic population in America
is exploding, from 22.4 million in 1990 to an estimated 30.3 million in
1998. Once the census is completed, many believe the latest estimates will
prove shockingly low. In small towns and large cities, particularly across
the South, the influx of Hispanic immigrants, mostly illegal, is straining
schools and social services, forcing police departments and other agencies
to rethink their ways of dealing with citizens and changing forever the old
idea of what a southerner is.
North Carolina is in the vanguard. According to the Census Bureau, the
Hispanic population here has burgeoned 110 percent from 1990 to 1998,
but Georgia is not far behind, with a 102 percent increase, and
Tennessee's Hispanic population has grown nearly 90 percent. Every one
of the southern states, except West Virginia, has experienced a
phenomenal flood of Hispanic newcomers. Their interest in the region is
basic: They are drawn by jobs--actually recruited in some cases by
employers desperate for entry-level workers--and unemployment rates
that in places are a rock-bottom 2 percent.
"In the South, we're in the situation where what is basically a biracial
community that was still dealing with issues of prejudice has now become a
multiracial community," said Leah Totten of MDC Inc., a Chapel
Hill-based think tank that compiles a biannual report called "State of the
"The problem this presents socially is that the black and white communities
at least know each other. We've been working with these problems for
hundreds of years," she said. "Now there is a new group that does not
speak the same language, and the social tensions have increased."
Many communities, like Siler City, located about 40 miles west of Raleigh
on the rural southern fringe of the booming Research Triangle area, have
found themselves ill-prepared for the onslaught. It happened so swiftly
here, in little more than five years, town officials say, that the pressures
cannot help but show.
Last year, the chairman of the local Chatham County Commission raised
the stakes--and drew a firestorm of attention--when he wrote the U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service to demand a crackdown on illegal
immigrants, only to do an about-face after a recent sensitivity-building trip
Seizing on the publicity the town had received, David Duke, the former
Klux Klansman and former Louisiana legislator who recently founded the
New Orleans-based National Organization for European American Rights
(NOFEAR), arrived here last month to stage an anti-immigration rally.
From the steps of the town hall, he railed at a crowd of several hundred
supporters and protesters, "To get a few chickens plucked, is it worth
losing your heritage?"
Duke was invited here by a local service station owner with reported
connections to the white-supremacist National Alliance. A handful of
supporters held signs that said, "To Hell with the Wretched Refuse" and
"Pollution of Our Population is Stupid," but Hispanic leaders had
encouraged Hispanic residents to stay home, and town police, fortified by
about 100 officers from surrounding areas, breathed a sign of relief when
the rally passed peacefully.
For many longtime residents, the town's rapid transformation into what
some derisively call "Little Mexico" caught them completely off guard. "I
don't want to say anything against anybody," said one woman, who did not
want to give her name, "but they just came in and took over."
With its charming older houses and traditional downtown, the community
the past had drawn the likes of actress Frances Bauvier, the beloved Aunt
Bea of "Andy Griffith" fame, who, although not a native Carolinian, chose
to live out her retirement here. Until recently, its most newsworthy event
was the three-day Chicken Festival in May.
Ilana Dubester, who since 1995 has headed Hispanic Liaison, a local
private nonprofit agency that assists the new residents, said the influx began
with young male workers who eventually brought in their immediate
families and then extended relatives. She estimates that there are now
about 10,000 Hispanics in a county that a decade ago had about 40,000
mostly black and white residents, according to the 1990 census.
"The feeling I got from local officials and government folks at first was
the Latinos were going to come and go. They were seen as migrants," said
Dubester, a native of Brazil. "It took a little while for people here to realize
they were not going to leave, they were going to stay. Everyone has to
adapt to what the city looks like now, and it's a different city from what the
older residents grew up in. And these new people are not white
Anglo-Saxons, which makes it harder, because after all, this is still the
The problems quickly became evident--not enough housing, inadequate
medical services, overcrowding in the schools, traffic congestion--the same
problems, critics say, produced by the nationwide Hispanic influx that are
the subject of 80 controversial billboards put up across the country by a
New York-based group called ProjectUSA. Many of them have been
erected in this region, said the group's founder, Craig Nelson, who also
said he is "trying to excite debate on immigration in nonracial terms."
Here in Siler City, said longtime Police Chief Lewis Phillips, one of the
most vexing problems had to do with the newcomers' lack of driver's
licenses, vehicle registrations and auto insurance. A recent $5 million drug
bust involving Mexican immigrants fanned the flames.
About six months ago, Chatham County Commission Chairman Rick
Givens, a retired airline pilot, felt compelled to write his letter to the INS,
which brought the media focus to Siler City. After a recent "humbling" trip
to Mexico, along with Phillips and about two dozen others, sponsored by
the N.C. Center for International Understanding, Givens said he would not
write such a letter again.
"But if the letter didn't do anything else, it opened up a dialogue," he
last week. "It was what people had been thinking about for 10 years and
didn't say anything. I didn't see why it had to be hush-hush."
In Mexico during the recent week-long visit, Givens said, he witnessed
firsthand the harsh poverty that propelled people to escape across the
border and saw how money sent by the Mexican immigrants helped to
ease lives back home. Now, he says, "it is a moot point here to think about
legal or illegal. That's a job for the federal government. I'm not going to
push anything now except how to help our community."
Just last week, Givens said, he received a certified letter from Duke,
threatening a recall campaign "if I don't come around to his way of thinking.
. . . I told David Duke, if you've got a positive solution, pick up the phone
and call me. I'm all ears."
In an interview last week, Duke said the problems of Siler City are
symbolic of the problems besetting many communities in the United States.
"The residents of the city, many of them, have family that goes all the
back to the 1700s here," he said. "In the blink of an eye, historically,
they're seeing their entire city change. What's happening in Siler City is an
Givens, Phillips and Dubester, buoyed with new hope, want to prove him
wrong. Local officials are holding meetings to coordinate assistance
agencies and are considering ideas like English-immersion classes for
Hispanic students and driving instruction for adults. It is a start in the right
direction, Dubester said.
"You know the expression, 'the silver lining in the cloud'? Even the David
Duke appearance is going to be a good thing for us," she said. "Because
most people in Siler City were asking themselves, 'In the year 2000, do we
really need the new faction of the KKK marching in town?' People who
were silent, who didn't care much one way or the other, are now taking a
stand: 'This is not what we are all about.' "
Wave of Change
Hispanic growth in the 1990s reached triple digits in many southern states,
according to Census Bureau estimates.
Percentage change in Hispanic population, 1990-1998
N. Carolina: 110%
S. Carolina: 63%
W. Virginia: 21%
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company