Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Alabama, So. Carolina lead nation in Latino population increase - and strict immigration laws

Photo by Maurice Michael/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The states with two of the nation's most restrictive new anti-illegal immigration laws also happen to be the two states that saw the biggest jump in their Latino population during the last decade.

Alabama saw a 145 percent increase in its Latino population between 2000 an 2010, according to census data, the second highest Latino growth rate in the nation. Its HB 56 immigration law, which remains partially blocked but has still caused a rash of school absences and a labor crisis in the fields as Latino workers flee the state, contains more restrictive provisions than Arizona's controversial SB 1070 on which it is modeled.

South Carolina, just sued by the federal government over its new SB 1070-inspired law allowing police to check for immigration status, saw the nation's biggest percent jump in Latino population growth: 148 percent. And Georgia, where an anti-illegal immigration law known as HB 87 was partially blocked in court over the summer but still caused a labor crisis, is not far behind. That state saw its Latino population grow 96 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The growth didn't happen all at once. All of these southern states, along with others, saw very sharp increases in Latino settlement during the previous decade as well. Many of the newcomers were foreign-born immigrants, driven there by jobs and prospects that were becoming scarcer in the more crowded, expensive western states. The ensuing culture clash and racial tensions, percolating since Latinos began settling in the South in large numbers, is more than partly behind these far-from-the border states going the way of Arizona.

How did it build up? Over the past several years, the changing demographic face of the South has prompted reports, academic papers, even several books that, in hindsight, hinted at what was to come. In 2005, the Pew Hispanic Center reported on the Latino population boom in six southern states between 1990 and 2000, with newer immigrants drawn to the South's then-robust economy. A few of the highlights:

  • North Carolina (394%), Arkansas (337%), Georgia (300%), Tennessee (278%), South Carolina (211%) and Alabama (208%) registered the highest rate of increase in their Hispanic populations of any states in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000, except for Nevada (217%)

  • The growth in the Latino population was even more dramatic at the county level, exceeding 1,000% in some counties and 500% in many others. The dramatic increases occurred across a range of county types, from small, non-metro manufacturing counties throughout North Carolina and north of Atlanta to counties in the heart of large metropolitan areas such as Nashville, Tenn.

  • Hispanics in the new settlement areas of the South states are predominantly foreign-born (57%). The immigrants are mostly men (63%) and young (median age 27). Most of these immigrants (62%) lack even a high school diploma, and 57% do not speak English well or do not speak it at all. More than half of these immigrants entered the U.S. between 1995 and 2000, and most lack legal status.

  • Rapid and widespread growth in income and employment in the region provided the economic incentives for Hispanics to migrate to new settlement states in the 1990s. Unemployment rates in the new South states and key metropolitan areas within those states were consistently lower than the nationwide rate between 1990 and 2000.

"Because the large growth in the Hispanic region is so recent, much of the impact of the new wave of immigration is only beginning to make itself felt on the infrastructure of the host communities...For now, employers in the region are happy to have a dependable source of low-cost labor available to them," the Pew report read.

But beneath the surface, tensions were simmering as the South's Latino workforce grew, followed by family settlement. In 2009, Mary E. Odem and Elaine Cantrell Lacey wrote in their book, "Latino Immigrants and the Transformation of the U.S. South" (University of Georgia Press):

Latino immigrants recruited to work in food-processing and forestry industries have helped revive rural areas and small towns that suffered from population and economic decline. At the same time, employers' reliance on Latin American workers has created tensions between immigrant and U.S.-born workers, both black and white.

Even though policy experts and economists disagree sharply about whether the use of immigrant labor has resulted in job losses and wage depression for American workers, many U.S.-born workers in Alabama, especially African Americans and white workers at the lower end of the wage scale, feel threatened by the new immigrants.

More recently, Helen Marrow wrote in her 2011 book "New Destination Dreaming: Immigration, Race and Rural Status in the Rural South" (Stanford University Press) about attitudes she had encountered lately, these in North Carolina, where she did her field research several years ago:
Indeed, anti-immigrant sentiment has become more pervasive in eastern North Carolina since 2003-04, just as it has in other parts of the state (McClain 2006) as well as in many other new destinations throughout the country. Even journalistic coverage of immigration became much more visible and polarized in the region after 2005.

Many natives in eastern North Carolina distance themselves from the blatantly racist and nativist rhetoric of official anti-immigration groups, but private and public discussion of Hispanics and immigration has grown noticeably more negative in recent years - to such a degree that one white resident of Bedford County recently remarked to me that "the things I now hear being said about Hispanics, you didn't even use to hear being said about blacks" (postfieldwork notes, June 2008).

In Apri 2008, I was even privy to a private conversation involving another white resident, who suggested that the easiest way to "deal" with rising numbers of Hispanic newcomers might be to "line them up" in one of eastern North Carolina's ubiquitous agricultural fields and "let the deer hunters take care of 'em."

Of course, this sentiment is by far not characteristic of all rural southern whites; in fact, it has generated its own pro-immigrant countermovement among them, especially within some church congregations. Yet it does illustrate a rising tendency among natives in the rural South, as elsewhere, to view Hispanic newcomers as "less than human" by virtue of a racialized association with unauthorized legal status...

Marrow went on to write that public attutudes surrounding Latinos in the South had "crystallized for the worse" since the nationwide immigrant rights marches of 2006, followed by the recession.

But some of the jobs the immigrants took, prompting fear among U.S.-born workers, remain open. Attempts to fill vacated farm labor jobs with American workers in states like Alabama and Georgia, faced with a labor shortage after their anti-illegal immigration laws took effect and threatened employers with sanctions, have so far not been working out.

And while the percentage growth of Latinos in Alabama and South Carolina has been impressive, perception has in some ways trumped the math. While both saw triple-digit growth during the past decade (and the previous one), the overall Latino population in both states remains relatively tiny: Latinos represent only 3.9 percent of the total population in Alabama, and only 5.1 percent of the population in South Carolina. While slightly larger in Georgia and and North Carolina, the Latino population accounts for only 8.8 and 8.4 percent of all residents, respectively.

To put in perspective, California's Latino population was 37.6 of the state total in 2010.