No Respect

Georgia's immigrants both legal and illegal have acted. What will be the long-term effect?

Luciana Campos stood on the steps of Georgia's Capitol, surrounded by metal barricades, balloons and bottles of water. Celine Dion's "Power of Love" and the Eagles' "Hotel California" blasted over large speakers as organizers prepared to talk. Campos, a 19-year-old Brazilian immigrant, donned a turquoise bandana for Brazilian pride and waved an American flag.

"I grew up in this country," she said. "I've been here longer than I was in Brazil, and I still don't have all my papers together. It's unfair that I've had to wait this long."

Campos was one of some 3,000 protesters who descended on the Capitol on Monday as part of a rally on International Workers' Day, or as organizers called it, "A Day Without Immigrants." It was Georgia's third major rally in two months to demand "respect" for immigrants both legal and illegal.

As with a March 24 protest, the grassroots group March 17 Alliance of Georgia asked participants to boycott businesses for the day. And as with a second rally April 10, when 50,000 marchers took to the streets of north DeKalb, the alliance (formed in response to Georgia's crackdown on undocumented immigrants) asked protesters to skip work, if possible, and wear white in solidarity.

But there was a marked departure in the protests this week — a hard reality that made organizers wonder whether rallies will advance the Latino community's cause or sputter to a stop.

The alliance organized Monday's boycott, but actively opposed the Capitol rally, which featured a mishmash from the Brazilian community and followers of Louis Farrakhan. Adelina Nicholls, a spokeswoman for the alliance, says her group didn't support the rally because activists worried a protest coinciding with the boycott might dilute the effort. But those fractures hint at how difficult it may be for Georgia's relatively new Hispanic community to exert political pressure on the state.

"This is a struggle for recognition," Nicholls said.

Monday's rally and boycott were part of a national effort to convince Congress to help the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants earn citizenship. But if illegal immigration is a hot issue across the country, it's sizzling in Georgia.

Last month, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a bill that places some of the nation's most comprehensive restrictions on illegal immigrants. Soon after Perdue signed that legislation, six members of his Latino Commission for a New Georgia resigned, complaining that he didn't seek their input. Then, the Mexican government singled out the state for an international reproach. Amid all the brouhaha, federal officials raided plants of a crate-making company, including one in DeKalb County, and arrested nearly 1,200 undocumented workers.

But while resignations, raids and rallies nab headlines, it's unclear whether the Latino community's spontaneous response to the immigration debate will have an impact.

"What you're seeing is a group of individuals on the margin of society wanting to assert equal rights," says LaGrange College sociologist Anton Flores. "They're a core group wanting to correct this issue."

Historically, Flores notes, social movements are successful only when they gain sympathy from people not directly affected. When white Southerners used brutal tactics to resist integration, white Northerners were repulsed and began to support the Civil Rights Movement in greater numbers.

But sympathy for illegal immigrants hasn't yet spread far outside the Latino community in Georgia. Polls show heavy support for more restrictions. And pro-immigration protests may even be drawing a backlash: Some bosses fired employees who skipped work for the rallies; an arsonist set fire to three buses parked in Doraville that had been used in the April 10 march; and anti-illegal-immigration activists are staging their own rallies. Some of them are even vowing to boycott Mexican restaurants on Cinco de Mayo.

"Much of the backlash to a social movement depends on the role of the state," says Regina Werum, a sociology professor at Emory University. "Does the state condone or even participate in the backlash? If so, the backlash is more violent."

Though Georgia's leaders haven't condoned the anti-immigration sentiments, the new state law has sent a clear message that lawmakers don't approve of the influx of illegal immigrants. Latino organizers, who frequently refer to "respect" as a major motivator for their protests, are particularly angry that state lawmakers have forged close relationships with some of the most radical anti-illegal-immigrant activists.

One of the unique challenges for pro-immigrant activists is that many protesters aren't citizens, which limits both what they can do — and the extent to which they'll be heard. That's contributed to tension between established groups and impromptu organizations that cropped up in response to the current debate.

Some established Latino organizations have remained mum, or even opposed the rallies. "For the most part, legacy Latino organizations have adopted the new immigrants," says state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta. "But not entirely, because there are issues over legality and that's a subject of concern to some."

But the rallies have unleashed a powerful force and created new leaders. Now, the question is whether Latino groups can harness and direct the protesters' message before allowing it simply to flame out.

Part of the answer lies in finding allies. That's a challenge when most actual citizens would rather crack down on undocumented workers than figure out how to weave them into society.

Time, Flores says, is on the immigrants' side. "[The new law] will prove to be on the wrong side of history. Politics are about building a constituency, and passing laws like this one doesn't do that."

Twelve years ago in California, then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, learned about that kind of mistake when he aggressively backed an anti-immigration ballot measure that became a symbol for the state's large Hispanic community. His party now has been relegated to minority status in the nation's largest state.

Georgia's Latinos don't have the numbers for such clout. The Hispanic Chamber says more than half a million Latinos now live in Georgia, a 300 percent increase in 10 years. But the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials estimates that only about 70,000 Hispanics are registered to vote. That's 2 percent of all voters.

But the immigration debate has energized organizations such as GALEO and the National Council of La Raza to enroll more voters and even to encourage legal residents to become citizens.

Whether or not they gain political influence in Georgia in the future, however, Hispanics already have acquired economic power that was unthinkable just a few years ago. In 1990, Latino buying power totaled $1.3 billion in the state. Last year, it passed $10 billion. And in four years, Jeff Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth, projects the buying power of the Latino community will top $17 billion.

"Latinos have already transformed Georgia's market," Humphreys says. "Mostly by consumer spending, but they're also very entrepreneurial and starting businesses at a rapid rate."

He notes that one-day boycotts won't cripple an economy (although they can grab attention and rally the troops for a cause).

But numbers that quickly reach into the billions do plenty to express the inevitable growth of Latino influence in Georgia. In the short term, Latinos and their allies can do little but watch and protest the perceived lack of respect.

The question is whether, in the future, they'll remember who their friends were.