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Immigrants Change a Small Southern Town

  • Emily Kopp

The north Georgia town of Gainesville likes to call itself "the poultry capital of the world." Its reputation has spread, at least, throughout this half of the world. Local chicken processing plants have attracted thousands of immigrant workers over the past two decades. In the process, the newcomers have transformed Gainesville from a sleepy southern town into a bustling industrial center that natives say is barely recognizable.

Marta Ceja, 18, says immigrants are flocking to Gainesville because it is very different than Mexico. "Here, there's a lot of work," she explains. "In Mexico, there's not very much." She and her mother crossed the border from Mexico and made their way to Gainesville to join her father just a year ago. Now, she's studying for her high school equivalency diploma and her parents are working in a local poultry plant.

Industry executives say immigrants like the Cejas fill jobs that Americans won't do. Tom Hensley is chief financial officer of Gainesville's biggest chicken processor, Fieldale Farms. He says before the immigration boom, his company couldn't find enough workers. "We had radio ads, newspaper ads. We had people out searching through town trying to find people to come to work," he recalls. "We had major problems filling our positions. Now we have an adequate labor supply, a good labor supply."

And those workers are making Gainesville, like many southern communities, more ethnically diverse. In just 25 years, the town's Latino population has mushroomed, from 88 to about 9,000, 1/3 of the town's residents. Supermarkets selling exotic peppers, piñatas and nopales can be found down the road from the Vietnamese church and just minutes away from Gainesville's historic downtown and the soul food restaurant Longstreet Café.

Over fried chicken and biscuits, some old-timers like Rebecca Laddy grumble about their new neighbors. "I think it's a hindrance that they don't learn English," she says. "A lot of people are intimidated by the gabbering." A retired health care worker and Gainesville native, Laddy says she doesn't recognize the town she grew up in. "The emergency rooms, the doctors' office, the health dept. is just bombarded. Our regular residents can't get in there. And our schools have literally been taken over by them. And a lot of our retail, especially our Wal-Mart, it's not our Wal-Mart anymore."

But other diners at the restaurant have taken those changes in stride. Some welcome the newcomers. Pastor Clack Stubbs says all Baptists share similar values, so it makes sense to share his church with an El Salvadoran minister and his Spanish-speaking congregation. "It's working real good," he says. "They have their own Sunday school, their own discipleship training and other programs. We have a Wednesday night meal. They come eat with us. We try to integrate at that time so we get to know them better."

Gainesville's public institutions are struggling to find enough bilingual workers, but they're adapting too. Fifty-three percent of public school students are Latino, so recruiters conduct international searches for qualified Spanish-speaking teachers. Officials say they don't know how many students are in the United States illegally, but they've recently sent home notices to quell rumors of immigration raids at the schools.

Educators have also created special programs to help the many immigrant children who have missed years of schooling. Elaine Levitt works with teens who are learning to make computer slide-show presentations, based on a book teachers have read to them. She says they're learning practical skills. "Because of their age, they're not going to be able to go to the high school and get all their credits. It's to help them have as much English as possible and to be functional in the work world."

Down the hall, another educational program targets older students who recently immigrated. Patricia Reynoso, 19, is grateful for the opportunity, but admits life in Gainesville is still hard. "Yes, it's good for studying," she says, "but other things aren't good here. For example, here you can't drive because you can't get a driver's license, and there are a lot of other things."

Despite the challenges, Reynoso echoes the feelings of other immigrants who say they have more opportunities here than in their native countries, and they're eager to put down roots in Gainesville and other small towns where they can start to build a new life.

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