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The ‘New South’ -- an Immigrant-Friendly Place

New America Media, Commentary, Patricia Thomas Posted: Jul 15, 2007

Editor’s Note: Patricia Thomas opened the joint New America Media and University of Georgia Immigration Summit on Thursday. The day brought Southern immigrant rights organizations together with ethnic media. Thomas is the Knight Chair of Health and Medical Journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The following is her welcome address to the summit.

patricia thomas ATLANTA -- We are proud to be an academic partner of New America Media, and we are very excited about being here today to learn more about what may be the number one news story in the United States right now and certainly the number one story in the South.

When Sandy Close (Executive Director of New America Media) asked me to provide a statistical overview of immigration patterns in the Southeast, I thought she was nuts. Because compared to you, who deal with immigration issues every day, I know nothing.

But then I took a moment to ask something writers often ask themselves: What is my standing in this story? What is my personal relationship to it?

The answer is that my family made the same journey that your families, and all the other families in your communities, made. They just made the trip a couple of generations earlier.

And, as you know, timing is everything.

Four years ago I made my first visit to Verona, the lovely Northern Italian city my family abandoned. It’s a very romantic place with the Romeo and Juliet legend, the Adige River and a Roman amphitheater. My people lived on the outskirts and cultivated grapevines and vegetables. Being there, I thought how sad it must have been to leave such a beautiful place, and how brave to join forces with a few neighbors and cross the Atlantic.

But the Ghiottos and Toffalettis were held down by political and economic problems. There was no way to make a better life for themselves or their children. They believed this could happen, though, if they took the risk of immigrating to the United States, the land of opportunity.

You know this story.

And although Italians did not use the terms “coyote” or “snakehead,” they were lied to and ripped off by the ship’s captain who brought them here. So they got off the boat with few possessions and very little money.

You know this story, too.

And like many of your families, they did not aim for established ethnic communities in New York or San Francisco. Instead, they settled in the Southeast, Central Florida to be exact, where they expected to prosper by farming. But their grapevines died and so they became small shopkeepers and ran a boarding house for men working on the railroad.

This is also a story you know.

And how were my relatives received in Ocala, Florida? You can guess. They were shunned and ridiculed for their language, their customs and even their wonderful Italian cooking. The only thing they did not give up was their Catholic faith, because that helped sustain them in the new world.

This is not an original story. You and I share it and the majority of people now living in the United States have a chapter like this in their family history. Unfortunately it is all too easy for many people to forget this chapter when they sit on city councils or in legislatures, although everyone is happy to be Irish when it’s St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah.

People who made the trip more recently – like your readers and listeners – cannot forget for a minute where they came from and how they got here. Not in Georgia, not in the South, not in 2007.

I don’t know how many Italians came here during the decade when my family arrived.

But I do know there’s been a tremendous influx of immigrants into the Southeast over the past 20 years.
• In 2000, the most recent immigrants to the Atlanta area came from Mexico, India, Vietnam, Korea and Jamaica. Further down the list were Colombia and China, along with several European nations.
• If you look at places where the Latino population soared by more than 300 percent between 1980 and 2000, 11 of 18 of these so-called “hypergrowth” areas are in the South. In Raleigh, for example, the Latino population exploded by nearly 1200 percent over 20 years; in Atlanta, it grew by nearly 1000 percent.

Atlanta will probably never have Hispanic or Asian communities the size of those in Los Angeles or New York, or even a black community as big as New York’s. But in terms of trends, all three of these populations are increasing rapidly in Southern metropolitan areas. According to a Brookings Institution report, called Diversity Spreads Out,
• Hispanic communities are growing fastest in Atlanta, Georgia, Charlotte and Raleigh, in North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, and four metro areas in Florida.
• Southern cities where Asian populations are soaring include Atlanta, Orlando and the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
• Black populations are also increasing in many parts of the South.

This Brookings report emphasized a phenomenon you no doubt already know about: immigrant communities are shifting away from inner cities and coastal port cities and toward suburbs and inland areas, where the cost of living is lower.

Cultural diversity is coming to small towns and rural counties: University of Georgia researchers found that during the 1990s, Hispanic populations soared by nearly 300 percent in 62 Georgia counties.

Remember when I said that the one thing my Italian forebears did not give up was their religion? One way to tell who is putting down roots is to note the types of churches, synagogues, temples, or mosques being built in an area.

When the megachurch phenomenon began in the 1980s, these giant Protestant houses of worship sprang up in white suburbs where congregants were affluent enough to build them. And the people who worshipped in them were white as well.

Today most of the 4.5 million people who attend megachurches are Caucasian, but 10-12 percent are African American, 2 percent are Asian, and 2 percent are Hispanic. About one third claim to have a significant minority presence, and more than half say their congregations are actively trying to become more multiethnic.

New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, where Coretta Scott King’s memorial service took place, is a megachurch in Lithonia, Georgia, with 25,000 mostly African-American members. But it now draws 1,000 people to a Spanish-language worship service.

Five thousand Muslims have gotten together to construct a new mosque in midtown Atlanta, across from the Atlantic Station mall.

And Mary Lou Pickle – who’ll be here today – wrote a story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about one of the world’s largest Hindu temples, now nearing completion in Lilburn.

These places of worship are the physical embodiment of the New South. And I hope that within their walls are people who will help reframe the immigrant rights struggle as a moral issue, as a morally wrong situation that must be put right. Thank you.

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