Mixed Signals Along South’s ‘Immigrant Highway’

John Moreno Gonzales, AP, March 10, 2009

Chamblee, Ga.–Odilio Perez aches for a life beyond Buford Highway, a six-lane stretch of strip malls and ethnic diversity that cuts through three counties in the New American South.

The thick-shouldered Guatemalan settled along the artery leading out of Atlanta more than a decade ago, answering the call of local officials who used the springboard of the 1996 Summer Olympics to make immigrants a centerpiece of the community’s rebirth. Vacant car lots and whitewashed stores gave way to affordable apartments, an eclectic mix of shops and towering business signs that are a study in polyglot.

More than a dozen languages are spoken along the thoroughfare, and in each, the question is often the same: Where does the immigrant highway ultimately lead? Hardened enforcement policies and stagnant green-card programs tell immigrants that America has limited use for them, yet the actions of local officials and employers in places like Buford Highway signal that they are a vital part of the future.

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Perez is part of a massive movement of immigrants who’ve bypassed traditional destinations such as New York and Los Angeles in favor of the South, bringing rapid change to cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; Orlando, Fla., and most recently, disaster-stricken New Orleans. In many cases, they’ve also settled in the suburbs instead of in urban pockets.

Perhaps no place captures the transformation as vividly as Buford Highway, where Korean shop owner Ruben Lee, for 20 years an expatriate in Argentina, rallies his workers in Spanish; where Chinese herbalist David Chu sells cure-alls in four Asian languages; and where Latino day laborers banter in Spanish and pre-Columbian dialects.

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The industrial businesses that were the highway’s main employers had shut down in the 1980s and early 1990s, making the strip a casualty. As the [Olympic] games approached, Asian merchants attracted by inexpensive leases and a steady traffic conduit established restaurants, shops and wholesale stores along the highway.

Latino workers from several nations added to the dynamic. They lived in dilapidated apartments along the road. A few squatted in the woods where older residents like Jesse Burnett, 65, once set rabbit traps.

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By the end of the 1990s, Chamblee had established a zone dubbed the “International Village,” home to nearly 1,000 people, mostly immigrants, who live above shops, a new child care center and park. City Hall includes a glass-plated facade that commemorates the “Immigration and Redevelopment” period of its history, while a city-designed expansion of the International Village continues today.

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Now the deportation program is closing in on Buford Highway. The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols communities just outside Chamblee, is awaiting final ICE approval to participate.

Even immigrants who want to be on the right side of the law stand little chance. The stepped-up enforcement has contributed to a decade-long backlog in legal residency applications and, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a wait list of about 1 million for citizenship.

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Day laborers who cluster along the highway have their own problems. Construction has dried up in the recession, and Buford Highway sometimes looks like it did in the old days. Several immigrant workers have set up tents in one of last wooded areas left on the strip.

Few plan to leave. With families in the U.S., a network of potential employers and several years invested in Chamblee’s immigrant vision, their fortunes are aligned with the highway’s.

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