Monday, Jul. 11, 2011
FORT VALLEY — In the parking lot of New Hope International Church at 7 a.m. July 2, members of the church, as well as Sacred Heart Catholic Church, are almost ready for a trek to Atlanta.
Dressed in white, they are off to protest the newly implemented House Bill 87, aimed at curbing illegal immigration in the state.
While most parts of the law went into effect July 1, some of the most controversial parts — a provision that requires law enforcement check the immigration status of someone who can’t provide proper identification and punishments for those who transport or harbor illegal immigrants — were blocked from taking effect until a legal challenge to HB 87 is resolved. State officials have since asked the decision to block those parts be overturned.
Others from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Macon and St. Juliana Catholic Church in Fort Valley planned to meet the group in Atlanta, with organized participation in the rally at the Georgia Capitol among the latest in the efforts of local leaders to mobilize the Hispanic community in Middle Georgia.
Before the group headed north, Father Pablo Migone from Sacred Heart prayed in Spanish for the safety of the group.
“Having legal papers doesn’t take away the dignity God gives us (and) we have as human beings,” Migone said in his prayer.
Bishop Jeff Poole, pastor of New Hope International Church, located off Russell Parkway, also prayed, as church member Enrique Fuentes served as translator.
“It takes courage, and the people with voices make a difference,” Poole said. “What you do makes a difference. Being silent will not make a difference.”
In light of HB 87 and stronger local law enforcement, Fuentes and fellow church member Jennifer Carbajal are forming a nonprofit organization to help the immigrant community in Middle Georgia and provide legal assistance, court translation, information about their countries’ consulates and other services.
“We want to give a voice to the people who don’t have any,” Fuentes said.
The leaders of the organization are not promoting illegal immigration but are trying to help those who are already here, Carbajal said.
Carbajal said she was impressed by seeing people of different races at the July 2 rally. She herself is white and a Georgia native, but immigration is an issue close to her heart. After entering the U.S. from Mexico illegally, her husband returned with a green card after a two-year wait, but missed the birth of their daughter.
“It was an overwhelming emotion to see so many people on the same page, on the same mission, and doing it in a nonviolent way,” said Carbajal, one of between 10,000 and 15,000 attending the event, according to news reports.
The growing Hispanic population in the state increased by 96 percent to 853,689 from 2000 to 2010, according to census data.
In an 11-county midstate region made up of Bibb, Houston, Jones, Monroe, Peach, Crawford, Twiggs, Wilkinson, Baldwin, Bleckley and Laurens counties, the Hispanic population shot up from 8,591 to 18,646 in the same time span, a 117 percent increase.
Along with rallies in protest of the law, sessions about the impact of HB 87 and laws affecting the immigrant community in Georgia have been taking place throughout the midstate.
The activity among the Hispanic community comes not only out of concern about those laws but also a desire to see immigration reform at the federal level, said Moises Velez, editor and co-owner of local Spanish-language newspaper ¿Qué Pasa?
“We need change. We need something done very soon. If not, we have this state doing one thing, and that state doing a different thing,” Velez said. “Making more laws is not going to resolve the problem.”
Velez has been an active part of the Hispanic community since he arrived in the area 25 years ago from Puerto Rico. In that time, the Hispanic community became larger and more diverse, with people from Honduras, El Salvador and Argentina, among others, adding to the Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban populations already in the region.
While Velez is still an influential presence in the area, a younger generation of community organizers is stepping in, including Carbajal and Fuentes.
“They understand the American way and the other way,” Velez said. “They’re fluent in both languages. They keep in touch (with) where they came from and their roots.”
The local organizers also have received support from groups such as the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and training from the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
By becoming an organized entity, Carbajal and Fuentes hope to reach out, not only to the Hispanic population but to the community at large.
“Most people are good people,” said Fuentes, a permanent resident from Mexico and a Peach County High School graduate. “They want to work and not be separated from their families.”
One of the challenges Carbajal sees is that many don’t know the issues they face.
“We really want to get the word out really of what’s going on,” she said.
There also are plans to reach out to communities in south Georgia. People from Valdosta and Tifton have contacted Velez in the past, and Fuentes said he would like to extend their efforts there.
All of those factors have served as a catalyst to organize the local Hispanic community, the three community leaders said.
“The majority of these people, from either fear or not wanting to speak out, they’ve gotten tired,” Carbajal said. “In that desperation, they’re willing to do whatever they need to do to speak up for themselves.
“They’re rising up — they’re not scared anymore.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.