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Nervously, Latinos Protest in the South

March 30, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — The undocumented workers at the fast-food restaurant on Buford Highway know about the immigration bills that threaten to radically change their lives. And they had heard about the citywide Latino work boycott organizers had called in protest.

But when the event rolled around on Friday, only one person called in sick. Most of the 30 illegal Latino workers at the restaurant -- it's part of a major national chain -- had held a meeting and decided that a boycott wasn't worth the risk. For now, they decided, a paycheck was more important.

"We're all united as Hispanics, and logically, no one here supports the bills," said Marcela, a shift manager who spoke on the condition that her full name be withheld because of her undocumented status. "But we need to get rid of the fear."

In recent days, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters burst onto the streets in major cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix, protesting a House bill that would make illegal immigration a felony.

In the South -- home to the nation's fastest growing Latino population -- there have been protests as well, though more modest in size, such as the one in Birmingham, Ala., that drew 150 people, and the one in Charlotte, N.C., that drew 5,000.

The immigrant rights "movement," such as it is, is in its infancy in the South. And many here are debating for the first time whether to make their voices heard.

The arrival of Latino immigrants, many of whom are illegal, began in earnest about 15 years ago; many of the social service and advocacy groups that serve them are relatively new.

Compared with California and other states with longestablished Latino populations, the South's undocumented workers also have fewer historical allies, from white liberals to Latino politicians. In Georgia, Latino elected officials consist of a state senator, an assemblyman, a state judge and a handful of city council members.

"The South was just black and white [people] 10 or 15 years ago," said David Lubell, director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. "Latinos are just getting past the issue of survival, and starting to get organized."

Today, however, pending immigration legislation in Washington and bills in statehouses in the South are prompting many Southern Latinos to take their first major steps into the arenas of politics and protest.

In Nashville on Wednesday afternoon, 32-year-old Irma Ramos was waiting to march on the Capitol with a crowd that grew to several thousand. Ramos runs a small Mexican restaurant, Las Primas, with her sister and mother, and she said she had never done anything like this. But she was angry that the state was doing away with a driving certificate program for undocumented workers after federal investigators discovered widespread fraud.

"We're just asking for someone to listen to us," Ramos said in a phone interview. "There's been people here almost all their lives, and they still can't have a driver's license. I don't think that's right."

In addition to protesting the bill in the U.S. House, the Nashville marchers were calling on Tennessee's Bill Frist, the U.S. Senate majority leader, to accept a more lenient bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would give illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship.

Organizers in Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina are planning rallies in April. Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, said immigrants in his state called on him to organize a protest after watching larger ones on television.

In South Carolina, organizer Irma Santana seemed overwhelmed by putting on a march. "I just got the permit, and this is my first time doing this. There's so much red tape!"

Santana's immigrant-rights group, Coalition for New South Carolinians, is two years old. "Basically this is a new community here. It's only in the last 10 years that the community has been growing," she said.

Friday's protest in Atlanta was an improvised affair. An anonymous flier had been circulating in the city's Latino communities calling for a protest march, said Teodoro Maus, a former Mexican consul general in Atlanta who resides in the area. But Maus and others were worried that it might be a trap set by immigration officials.

So instead, Maus and other leaders hastily planned the boycott, asking immigrants to stay home from work and refrain from buying anything to demonstrate their economic impact.

Maus called the protest a success, but acknowledged it was difficult to gauge. A few restaurants closed down, but other businesses remained open along Buford Highway -- the main drag of one of the city's largest Latino neighborhoods.

Four days later, the Georgia legislature passed an immigration measure that would curtail many government benefits to illegal immigrants and dissuade employers from hiring them -- or forbid them to do so. Gov. Sonny Perdue is expected to sign the bill.

"But here in Atlanta the [Latino] community is very young," Maus said. "We don't have the strength to say, 'We want this and this and this, and if you don't give it ... we're going to vote you out of office.' "

*

Times staff writer Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.

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