Immigrants flocking to GOP districts
DALTON, Ga. --It's a slice of Americana: children playing soccer on a sunny Saturday morning, their parents cheering them on. But at these soccer fields, the dominant language is Spanish, the food truck sells authentic Mexican and few of the adults are eligible to vote.
Along the sidelines, America Gruner lugs a plastic tub filled with blank voter registration forms. Gruner has worked for months to register Latinos, inspired by an immigration debate that has become shrill to many Hispanics. Most politicians in this Republican stronghold in north Georgia offer little sympathy.
"They haven't, at least openly, supported us when we needed it," said Gruner, a legal immigrant who has registered about 100 voters so far.
Republican congressional districts are becoming magnets for immigrants -- legal and illegal -- but GOP lawmakers are not exactly embracing their new constituents.
Of the 50 House districts nationwide with the fastest-growing immigrant communities, 45 are represented by Republicans. All but three of those lawmakers voted for a bill that would make illegal immigrants felons.
Overall, GOP districts added about 3 million immigrants from 2000 to 2005, nearly twice the number that settled in districts represented by Democrats, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data.
The numbers help explain why illegal immigration is such a big issue in rural Georgia, eastern Pennsylvania and in suburbs throughout the United States.
They also help explain why House Republicans passed five bills on border security in the weeks before Congress recessed for the Nov. 7 elections. Only one measure, calling for a border fence, has become law.
Max Burns, a Republican congressional candidate in eastern Georgia, typifies the hard line.
"No citizenship, no federal benefits, no guaranteed access to this country because they broke the law to come here," Burns says.
His tight race against Democratic Rep. John Barrow illustrates the GOP strategy in many congressional campaigns.
Barrow has voted for nearly every Republican immigration bill approved by the House in the past year. He voted to make illegal immigrants felons and to erect the border fence. He said he "opposes amnesty in any form."
Yet Burns' campaign ran a television ad attacking Barrow after the congressman was quoted in a newspaper as saying the U.S. should not let in any more immigrants until it assimilates the illegal ones already here. "He's for assimilating illegal immigrants," the ad intones. "That's amnesty!"
Barrow's campaign responded with a television ad boasting that "John Barrow voted to make it a crime to be in the United States illegally."
Barrow narrowly defeated Burns in 2004. The district was redrawn for the upcoming election to include several areas that have attracted new immigrants, including Vidalia, famous for its onions.
Shackled with an unpopular president and the war in Iraq, many Republican candidates are determined to focus on local issues as they fight to maintain control of Congress. Illegal immigration, it turns out, can be a potent local issue in communities unaccustomed to a lot of newcomers.
"It's a law-and-order issue to the people in my district," said Rep. Jim Gerlach, a Republican from southeast Pennsylvania.
Gerlach's district added 16,000 immigrants from 2000 to 2005, a 49 percent increase. He has aired a television ad calling President Bush "wrong" for proposing a guest worker program "that may lead to amnesty for illegal immigrants."
Gerlach is in a tight rematch with Democrat Lois Murphy, who barely lost the election two years ago. Murphy is appalled that Republicans are trying to make illegal immigration a campaign issue, saying the problem mushroomed on their watch.
"It's their failure and they shouldn't get any points for it," Murphy said.
There are nearly 36 million immigrants living in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. An estimated 11 million to 12 million are in the country illegally.
For generations, most immigrants settled in big cities, attracted by fellow countrymen and by social service networks that catered to them. But immigrants increasingly are chasing jobs to fast-growing suburban and rural communities in Middle America -- areas that have elected a lot of Republicans to Congress.
North Georgia has attracted thousands of Latino immigrants -- legal and illegal -- to work in carpet mills in Dalton, in poultry plants in Gainesville and on farms that dot the landscape in between.
The region exemplifies the struggle -- and promise -- of Latinos yearning for political power. Hispanics make up about 12.5 percent of the district represented by GOP Rep. Nathan Deal, but less than 2 percent of registered voters.
The district added 28,000 immigrants from 2000 to 2005, a 57 percent increase. But more than three-fourths of the immigrants are noncitizens, giving Barrow little incentive to reach out to them.
"It's difficult to know who's legal and who's illegal, but you know for sure that we haven't let that many legal immigrants in," said Deal, a seven-term incumbent from Gainesville.
Deal has proposed legislation that would deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. It is unclear whether the bill would be constitutional and it is unlikely to pass this year. But it has attracted 87 co-sponsors in the House.
Deal's opponent in November, Democrat John Bradbury, said Republicans offer slogans rather than solutions to illegal immigration. "We're dealing with people who are perfectly willing to accept catch phrases instead of thought," said Bradbury, a political newcomer who faces long odds on Election Day.
Gruner, the volunteer voter recruiter, moved from Mexico to Dalton five years ago to work as an interpreter in the schools. She is in the country legally, but empathizes with those who are not.
"We feel like this is a political game and the politicians are playing with us," Gruner said. "They don't see the faces. They just see a political outcome."
It takes Gruner two hands to carry the tub filled with voter registration forms as she strolls through the crowd at the soccer game.
She approaches two men sitting under a small tree next to the soccer fields. They wave her away, saying they are not U.S. citizens. The men are brothers, Raul and Juan Perez. Both were born in Mexico; only Juan is in the U.S. legally.
Raul Perez, 53, said he has entered the U.S. many times and now works as a stone mason on homes. He fetches an envelope stuffed with photographs of his work, pictures of ornate fireplaces and stone-sided houses. One features an elaborate stone wall alongside a backyard swimming pool, a waterfall cascading into the pool.
"You show them what an illegal can do," he says through an interpreter, offering the photo to a visitor.
Neither man has much use for politicians. They do not think Republicans or Democrats represent their interests. But they are hopeful.
"We have children who are citizens and they are getting ready to vote in a few years," says Juan Perez, 43. "We will be a majority someday."
About 40 miles to the south, in Rome, Michael Morton has joined a group that videotapes workers entering factories, asking them if they are in the country legally.
"Most of them will say no," said the retired marketing executive, who believes that illegal immigrants strain social services and take jobs from Americans.
Morton said he joined the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps because he felt his community was being overrun. The Arizona-based group patrols the Mexico border looking for illegal immigrants. Morton was planning a three-week trip to the border this fall.
"We have a great deal of respect for the work ethic they bring, but they are breaking the law to do it," Morton said. "They are a segregated culture and their culture seems to be in opposition to our American culture."