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Georgia Town is Case Study in Immigration Debate

30 Dec

By Miriam Jordan

Charles Carmical doesn’t like President Barack Obama ’s politics and doesn’t endorse his recent move to enable millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. But, the furniture-store owner acknowledges, it might be good for his bottom line.

“If these people make more money and feel stability, it will help my business,” said Mr. Carmical, standing in his Dalton Auctions showroom on South Dixie Highway.

Illegal immigration has changed the face of this northern Georgia town. Mexicans and Central Americans flocked here by the thousands in the 1990s to toil in the mills that earned Dalton the nickname “carpet capital of the world.” Now, the large concentration of undocumented people in this conservative corner of a conservative state will make it a powerful case study for the impact of Mr. Obama’s program as it rolls out in 2015.

Carpet-mill work has enabled many immigrants to jump from poverty to relative prosperity. But every immigrant interviewed here seems to know someone who was deported, lost a job for using a false Social Security number, or has been jailed for driving without a license.

Stung by enforcement raids, carpet manufacturers haven’t reacted publicly to Mr. Obama’s plan, which most Republicans call an abuse of presidential power. Shaw Industries, one of the largest carpet makers, declined an interview request. The Carpet and Rug Institute trade group also declined to comment.

While Mr. Obama’s plan offers no pathway to citizenship, it offers a reprieve from deportation and work permits to as many as five million people. For many here, that is a life-changing prospect. “We can’t wait to live without fear,” said Mexican Elva Sofia Loya, who is likely to qualify for the program because she has been in the U.S. since 1999 and has three U.S.-born children. On Thanksgiving, her family and friends gathered to watch a replay of Mr. Obama’s Nov. 20 speech unveiling the plan. She said they look forward to a new sense of security and freedom—to go to work or attend school events without fear of encountering police who might alert immigration authorities.

Others say they will feel empowered to demand better pay and treatment. “Some employers get away with exploiting people without papers,” said Juan Castro, 28, who quit one firm that didn’t pay him overtime.

Georgia is among more than 20 mostly GOP-leaning states that have sued the president to block his move. The state also is one of a handful that doesn’t allow immigrant students who benefited from the 2012 federal DACA program to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.

In Dalton, however, “we try to stay out of the noise and finger-pointing,” said Brian Anderson, president of the Dalton Chamber of Commerce. “I believe [the executive action] could only improve our community.”

Immigrants form the backbone of the carpet industry here, which generates $20 billion in revenue annually. They began arriving in the late 1980s as producers faced a labor shortage amid soaring demand for wall-to-wall carpeting. The arrivals were happy to do menial jobs, such as feeding yarn into tufting machines. “If you were willing to work hard, the jobs were there,” said Mr. Anderson. Today, Dalton has about 16,000 Hispanic residents out of a total of 30,000. In 1990, the Hispanic population numbered just 1,400. That same year, resident Jim Baird started a nonprofit to provide services like document translation for immigrants. He helped 43 Latinos the first month, 100 the next, and hundreds more thereafter.Some had crossed the border and headed straight to Dalton; others relocated from Texas and California, he recalls.

As the immigrant population swelled, local schools established English language-learning programs. Soccer began to rival football in popularity. Many locals tried their first tacos and burritos as Mexican restaurants opened.

Some area residents were uneasy with the newcomers. But the reaction was more muted than might have been expected in such a conservative area, said Randall Patton, a Kennesaw State University historian who has published two books about the carpet industry. In a 2003 book, Mr. Patton quoted Shaw Industries’ executive Charles Parham, now deceased, saying, “The Hispanics have been a salvation of our carpet industry.”

“Mill owners tend to be rock-ribbed Republicans, but business trumps politics,” Mr. Patton said.

Mill worker Jeff Ellis said he worried that immigrants, who tend to have larger families, get “advantages from the government.” But he said he has many Latino friends in the factory.

In 2008, Dalton’s county, Whitfield, signed on to a federal program that trained sheriff’s deputies to identify and report undocumented immigrants. That resulted in many immigrants being deported. Paige Watts, a teacher at Dalton’s Morris Innovative High School, where 80% of students are Hispanic, said, “Families doing the best for their children were just torn apart.”The crackdown, coupled with the recession, led many Latino families to leave the area. Still, by 2010, Hispanics represented almost half of Dalton’s population, according to the U.S. Census. Most students in the local public schools were Latino.

In 2011, both the city’s leading mayoral candidates said they welcomed the area’s immigrants. In 2013, the Dalton Chamber of Commerce’s executive board endorsed a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Neither of Georgia’s GOP senators backed the bill, which would have put about 11 million undocumented people on the path to citizenship.

That same year, Dalton State College created a new position, “director of Hispanic and Latino Outreach,” to boost its Latino enrollment. Latinos now comprise 21% of the student body, and the goal is to reach 25% in 2016, said the director, Quincy Jenkins.

Among Dalton State students is Georgia-born Edgar Cruz, 20. His parents, who have worked in the mills for years, paid cash for the double-wide trailer where he was raised. “Being undocumented has limited them, even though they work hard,” said Mr. Cruz. Now, he said, “they’re excited about the Obama plan.”

At Mr. Carmical’s showroom, repeat customer Clemente Lopez was shopping for a mattress. Mr. Lopez arrived from Mexico 17 years ago and became a U.S. resident after marrying a Latina whose family became legal after a 1986 amnesty, the last time Congress overhauled the immigration system. He learned English, improved his skills, and now earns $17.52 an hour at a carpet mill. The father of two bought a four-bedroom house.

After negotiating, owner and customer agreed to $499 for the mattress. The transaction done, Mr. Carmical quoted a line often used by his father, who started the business about 60 years ago. “Money has one color,” he said.