Navigating Immigration Policy at the Local Level: Public Policy and Politics Converge, Producing a Window of Opportunity in Dalton, Georgia

Article excerpt

Many local governments have been grappling with the relatively new issue of immigration for several years. Although some believe immigration policy should be a federal responsibility, the immigrants' arrival at new destinations has prompted many of America's cities, towns, and counties to experiment with novel solutions.

Dalton, Georgia, with its population of thirty-two thousand, has been a "new destination" for Latinos for well over fifteen years, and immigration issues are nothing new to the community. Located in North Georgia on Interstate 75 just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and north of Atlanta, Dalton is the center of regional carpet-making, proudly christening itself "The Carpet Capital of the World." Long an industrial district focused on a single industry, Dalton manufacturers made many technological improvements in carpet-making and developed the tufted method, yielding a better and faster-made product. The industry was a boon to the Dalton area beginning in the 1980s. While technologically advanced, the industry is still relatively labor intensive. With the nationwide housing boom and a preference for carpet, the industry in Dalton needed workers. This steady need for workers superseded the global and national slowdowns of the period.

Rapid Demographic Change

Mexican migration to the area began in the 1970s fueled by demands of the poultry industry and the construction of a federal reservoir north of the city. Shortly thereafter, the lure of better working conditions and better pay drew workers to the carpet-making companies in the area and set the stage for fast growth to meet the labor demands of the following decades. Federal government policies also contributed to the influx of Latino immigrants to the region. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which included an effort to clear the board on undocumented persons in the United States by offering a form of amnesty. Most of those utilizing the offer were males, and their desire for family reunification in the United States created a new kind of illegal traffic.

A decision was made at the federal level not to interfere with the family reunification process, which had an unintended effect on Dalton. As Hernandez-Leon and Zuniga state, IRCA "marked a watershed in Mexico-U.S. migration history and signaled the initiation of mass Latino inflows to Dalton and many other nontraditional destinations across the country." The word was out: newly documented Latinos recruited others to come to Dalton, where the wages were good, the work was steady, and "you could work indoors." The city experienced a large influx of Latinos during the 1990s, and by 2000, 40 percent of the city population was Latino. The percentages of Latinos in the Dalton public schools show the striking impact of Latino immigration to the area. In the 1989-90 school year, the enrollment was less than 4 percent, but by the end of the decade, Latinos constituted the majority in the schools. The 2007-08 school year report showed 65 percent of students were Latino.

Search for Solutions

City leaders hardly knew that the Latino population was burgeoning until the early nineties. By the mid-nineties, however, local government leaders were convinced the changing demographics were impacting the delivery of municipal services and creating anti-immigrant sentiment. By 1994, at the request of the elected officials, the city administrator began to research ways other cities in the South with similar situations had responded. However, little experimentation seemed to be going on regionally.

During this time, two undocumented immigrants were involved in a shooting that prompted the Dalton police chief to begin collaborating with other govern ment agencies to establish a federal immigration office in the city. The chief, a proponent of the community policing philosophy, had three objectives: (1) to improve the community's ability to identify illegal aliens and deal with them appropriately, (2) to have an immigration expert available locally to help identify forged documents, and (3) to acquire assistance in alleviating the language barrier between immigrants and the general population. …