[Marxism] Scapegoating immigrants in a declining Georgia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 17 07:35:25 MDT 2006


U.S. Border Town, 1,200 Miles From The Border
Georgia's 'Carpet Capital' Relies on Immigrants

By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006; A01

DALTON, Ga. -- Jerry Nelson steered his grocery cart out of the Wal-Mart on 
a recent night, fuming about globalization, Southern style. "Another great 
night at the Mexican Wal-Mart," he groused to no one in particular.

The mass migration of Latinos to this corner of northwest Georgia known as 
the carpet capital of the world has changed the character of everything 
from factory floors to schools to superstores. On this night, Wal-Mart's 
ubiquitous TV monitors alternately promoted arroz and rice, aparatos and 
electronics.

Like many working-class natives of this once lily-white area, Nelson blames 
the changes on the carpet industry, which he insists lured the Mexicans -- 
and more recently, other Latinos -- to keep down wages and workers' 
leverage in this nonunion region. "We all know who the culprit is: Big 
Business. That's who's running our country," he said.

But the immigration-driven transformation of work in the United States is 
not simple, and Nelson played a role in the story, too. For decades, 
displaced farmers were the backbone of carpet mills. Nelson's mother left a 
farm in Appalachia to work in one until age 82. But Nelson didn't follow 
her. Neither did his wife, Georgia, also a mill worker's daughter. "We 
wanted more than our parents," said Jerry Nelson, who spent most of his 
career as a heating and ventilation contractor.

Another indispensable force was a federal immigration system that went limp 
in the face of urgent demands for labor, whether in the Vidalia onion 
fields 270 miles to the southeast or the Atlanta Olympic Village 90 miles 
to the south. Both drew thousands of illegal workers, many of whom 
ultimately found their way to Dalton through another important force: the 
amazing Mexican jobs grapevine.

And then there was the longest economic expansion in American history. As 
buildings rose and homes kept getting bigger, Americans carpeted almost a 
billion more square yards of floor in 2004 than in 1994, a 50 percent 
increase. With more than three-quarters of America's carpets made in and 
around Dalton, a shrinking workforce and 10,000 jobs to fill in a decade, 
the region was in the grip of a labor vacuum.

And immigration adores a vacuum. Today 40 percent of Dalton, 61 percent of 
its public school students and half of this region's carpet factory workers 
are Latino.

"A lot of people used to come here from Tennessee when there were no jobs 
there," said Shirley Silvers, who has worked 30 years for Dalton 
carpetmaker J&J Industries. "I guess it's the same now for Mexicans."
Reaching Past Dalton

Dalton may be 1,200 miles from Mexico, but it is in many ways a border 
town, whipsawed by every twist in the immigration debate. Its business and 
civic leaders call Latinos saviors of their one-industry economy, while its 
state and federal lawmakers are in the forefront of efforts to seal the 
border and block a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

And U.S.-born workers at Mohawk Industries Inc., the nation's No. 2 carpet 
manufacturer and a major Dalton employer, have filed one of several 
class-action lawsuits around the country alleging that the hiring of 
illegal workers constitutes federal racketeering -- a legal strategy that, 
if successful, could subject Mohawk to huge fines. Mohawk says it obeyed 
all applicable laws and is trying to have the suit dismissed. But the 
forces that changed Dalton are not easily reversed. The carpet industry 
always has relied on migrants. It took off in the 1950s, drawing people 
throughout Appalachia to the steadiest paycheck in the hardscrabble region.

"Men left farms, stayed in boarding houses for $7 to $10 a week and worked 
in the mills until they saved enough money to bring their families," said 
Shaheen Shaheen, an industry pioneer who in 1954 started World Carpets, now 
part of Mohawk.

So began a cycle of carpet companies depending on workers from well beyond 
Dalton, and Dalton staking its future on carpet companies. Whitfield County 
Commission Chairman Brian Anderson said that the area's 150 carpet 
factories pay 70 percent of county taxes and that nine out of 10 jobs 
depend on them. And as in the 1950s, industry executives praise the new 
arrivals' work ethic and appetite for overtime -- only now they cross 
national instead of state borders.

Norberto Reyes arrived here in 1981 with visions of opening an authentic 
Mexican restaurant for an Anglo clientele, and he remembers finding only a 
handful of Latino families. "I wanted to hire Mexicans to work in my 
restaurant, and it was hard to find them," Reyes recalled from the stucco 
hacienda that houses Los Reyes, now a Dalton institution.

The shift began soon after the 1986 immigration law granted amnesty to 
millions of illegal U.S. immigrants. At about the same time, carpet 
factories began hiring after a deep recession. Frank Shaheen, a cousin of 
Shaheen Shaheen and owner of a small carpet mill in nearby Calhoun, said he 
first noticed the transition at a sweltering factory where his company's 
yarn was dyed.

"It was like there were two completely separate workforces there," he said. 
"One was these older [white] guys who'd been there since the business 
opened in 1951. And the other was all young Hispanics. There was nobody in 
between."

According to Ruben Hernández-León, a sociologist at the University of 
California at Los Angeles, almost 2,000 Mexicans had moved to Whitfield 
County by 1990 -- still less than 3 percent of the population but the 
foundation for what followed.
Word of Mouth

The national housing boom of the 1990s sent demand for carpet soaring, 
prompting alarm about a labor shortage in Dalton. First-generation workers 
were retiring and many young people had left for New South metropolises 
like Atlanta. The county's non-Hispanic workforce dropped by more than 
4,000 in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census. And many who remained 
turned away from factory work. Industry executives talked of moving some 
major facilities from the area, possibly to Mexico. Meanwhile, word of the 
jobs bounty -- advertised on billboards and banners -- spread to Mexican 
enclaves around the country.

Carmen Campos, who became a citizen after the 1986 amnesty, was working in 
a foul-smelling meat-packing plant in Dodge City, Kan., for less than $10 
an hour when his sister-in-law called with news of better work and better 
schools in Dalton. (He now makes $14.64 an hour as an operator for Shaw 
Industries Inc.) A woman named Elizabeth, who would not give her last name 
because she is here illegally, said she and her husband were working on 
cleaning crews in Los Angeles when an old friend called to say they could 
make more money in carpet factories and pay half as much in rent. Mario 
Figueroa, 18, said his father was working on a dairy farm in California 
when a relative called with a message that beckoned many a farmworker: " 
Allá se trabaja adentro ." (There you work indoors.)

The Pew Hispanic Center has found that Mexicans who have been in the United 
States for a year on average have relatives in a dozen U.S. cities. "The 
labor market knowledge of your typical Mexican worker is astounding," said 
Roberto Suro, the center's director.

The buzz didn't stop at the border. Kitty Kelley, an anthropologist who 
researched immigration here in the 1990s, said she interviewed carpet 
workers who would go home to Mexico to help their families during planting 
seasons, then return with eight cousins. A men's soccer team here is named 
Jalisco because all the players came from that Mexican state; most now work 
at Mohawk, which sponsors the team. By 2000, the Census counted 18,419 
Hispanics in Whitfield County, a ninefold increase in a decade and still a 
severe undercounting, according to researchers.

Asked what they knew about Dalton before arriving, seventh-grade Latino 
children at a Dalton State College summer program had many versions of the 
same answer. "There was work here and there were no jobs at home," said a 
girl named Candelaria from Guatemala. "There was a good future," said a boy 
named Jesús from Ecuador. "My father said of all the states in the U.S., 
this was the best place to live and make money," said a girl named Julia 
from Brazil.

Carpet factory wages start at $8.50 to $10 an hour for unskilled workers, 
compared with a state minimum wage of $5.15. But the grapevine also touted 
Dalton's safe schools and neighborhoods, far from the gangs and crime of 
border towns and big cities.

Campos, the former meat packer from Dodge City, and his wife, Armida, who 
both work for Shaw Industries, said they came with hopes that their sons 
would get good educations. On the living room wall in their immaculate 
trailer home are two framed certificates from the President's Education 
Awards Program, each for their oldest son, Jorge -- one signed by Bill 
Clinton; one by George W. Bush. Jorge, 18, graduated in May as 
valedictorian of Southeast Whitfield County High School, the first 
Mexican-born student to do so, and plans to attend Dalton State College in 
the fall.

"He is like our hero, we are all so proud," said Nancy Fraire, a classmate 
and also a child of Mexican carpet workers.
Georgia's Immigrants

While Nancy and Jorge's parents are here legally, industry officials say 
they know that some workers are probably using fraudulent papers, which are 
widely available for a price. But the law does not require employers to 
verify whether official-looking documents are valid.

"If there's no reason to question the validity, we don't. If there is, we 
do," said Louis Fordham, vice president of human resources at J&J Industries.

The Mohawk workers' lawsuit invokes a 1996 law that made knowingly hiring 
illegal immigrants a potential racketeering offense. It alleges that the 
company recruited illegal workers and paid bonuses to employees who 
transported and housed them and supplied them with fake papers. It also 
alleges that the company effectively winked at obviously fake documents. 
The alleged scheme suppressed the wages of U.S.-born workers, according to 
the lawsuit.

Mohawk denied the allegations and has challenged the racketeering theory 
all the way to the Supreme Court, which last month sent the case back 
without a ruling to the federal appeals court in Atlanta for reconsideration.

"Mohawk is proud of the fact that it has a diverse workforce," said its 
lead attorney, Juan Morillo of Sidley Austin LLP. "It didn't do anything 
intentionally to generate that."

Several researchers say the 1996 Olympics are the reason Georgia has more 
illegal immigrants than any Southern state except Florida -- 350,000 to 
450,000 in 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Atlanta's former 
Mexican consul general, Teodoro Maus, said thousands of illegal workers 
from Mexico suddenly appeared on construction crews when preparations for 
the Olympics fell behind schedule, and federal immigration officials 
assured him they would not interfere -- and they didn't.

"You'd see 40-foot-high girders, and up top, all these brown faces, right 
in the middle of Atlanta," Maus said. "Everyone agreed the Olympics never 
would have been finished on time without them."

Another turning point came in 1998, when immigration agents raided the 
Vidalia onion fields, putting the valuable harvest in jeopardy, only to be 
called off after Georgia congressmen protested to the Clinton 
administration. One protest came from then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R), now a 
senator and an advocate of deporting illegal immigrants.

Soon afterward, periodic immigration raids came to a halt in Georgia and 
nationally. The Government Accountability Office found that the federal 
government filed notices of intent to fine only three companies in 2004, 
compared with 417 in 1999. The Pew center and UCLA's Hernández-León 
estimate that more than half the Latinos who arrived in Dalton after 1995 
were illegal.

The government recently conducted several highly publicized raids of 
companies with illegal workers and has promised more.

Even when the raids were going on, Dalton's civic leaders were sending a 
different message. When Latino parishioners overflowed Dalton's 130-seat 
St. Joseph's Catholic Church -- even after pews were extended and aisles 
narrowed -- industry executives helped pay for a new, 600-seat church whose 
bilingual priest now leads both masses and misas. Parishioner Carl 
Burkhardt, president of Dalton's No. 3 carpetmaker, Beaulieu of America 
Inc., gave $1 million while Shaw Industries chief executive Bob Shaw 
"godfathered" the project, according to Father Daniel Stack, the priest at 
the time. "He said we were taking care of his workers, so he wanted to help 
take care of us," Stack said.

And as Latinos increased from 4 percent of Dalton public school students in 
1990 to 44 percent in 2000 and 61 percent in 2005, help came from the 
industry, the city government and a $500,000 federal grant, all at the 
behest of a prominent local attorney and former congressman. The Georgia 
Project, founded by attorney Erwin Mitchell in 1996, brought bilingual 
educators from Mexico to teach Latino children and to instruct local 
teachers in the Spanish language and Mexican culture. It also sends Dalton 
teachers to a summer institute in Mexico and provides after-school tutoring 
for Latino children whose parents don't speak English.

"We're not about immigration; we're about education," Mitchell said. 
Commission Chairman Anderson said the county would have to raise property 
taxes to cover rising costs for schools and indigent health care, but he 
argued that paying for immigration is cheaper than not paying for it.

"People will say if it wasn't for these darned Mexicans, we wouldn't have a 
tax increase," Anderson said. "But would you rather have a little increase 
in property taxes because our industry thrives and we all benefit, or would 
you rather the industry left and we had no jobs here?"
Our United States

To Betty Motley, who retired last year after 21 years with six carpet 
companies, the choice is not that simple. Standing on her porch in a mill 
workers' neighborhood, she pointed out a green, two-bedroom house across 
the street where she said five Mexican men live.

"They don't spend anything, they're just saving," she said. Around the 
corner is Morales Market and a branch of Sigue Corp., the leading 
transmitter of money from the United States to Mexico.

Down the street, a woman named Diane, who would speak only on condition 
that her last name not be used for fear of retaliation from her supervisor, 
has worked 15 years for Mohawk said most of her white co-workers have 
retired, quit or been laid off.

She said that her new Latino co-workers work faster than she does and that 
she can't meet the new production quota, meaning she now makes less money.

"They're taking our United States and making it their United States," 
Motley said. "Mohawk and Shaw used to be our companies."

Rep. Nathan Deal (R), whose district includes Dalton, said he hears 
constantly from constituents upset about the Spanish-speaking majority in 
their children's schools, about hospitals where disproportionately 
uninsured Latinos increase the cost of care.

Deal is considered a hard-liner on immigration. He has introduced 
legislation to deny citizenship to U.S.-born children whose parents are 
illegal immigrants, and he wants to deport illegal immigrants, secure the 
border and establish a fraud-proof guest-worker program.

But when asked where this would leave Dalton and the carpet industry, he 
sounded more open to negotiation.

"To say we'll seal the border and enforce the law is not something we can 
do by snapping our fingers," he said. "That's no more realistic than those 
who say we should just have open borders."

Staff researchers Richard Drezen and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this 
report.

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