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Gainesville: the American Hotspot for Immigration

It is one scene.

B233 is spray-painted in big, black letters above the door. A camera on the top edge of the freshly painted white wall looks a like a glass, opaque bubble. One thick, red stripe spans across all the walls and a fake tree rests in the corner.

Through wall-wide windows, you can see bunk beds that line a large cellblock. Two men in blue jumpsuits sit at a table in front of the beds, watching a small television mounted in the ceiling corner. One man sleeps in a bunk in the opposite corner. Most bunks remain empty. A slight stench of cleaning solution consumes the air.

At any one time, 2,500 people will be in this building for an average of 28 days.

This is no prison. This is the North Georgia Detention Center on a damp, grey day in Gainesville, GA — one of the American hotspots for a large movement of immigrants.

That distinction, prison versus detention center, is important. As William Hampton, acting assistant field director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at this detention center, will say: “We are not detaining them to punish them. We are detaining them to make sure they go to court.”

But one tour of the rest of the town exposes a truth: it is not so obvious that all of Gainesville understands that, or even sees that. The different sections of this town see this one scene, with the bunk beds and the detainees, in very different lights.

In one part of this town, the scene above is the mark of Corrections Corporation America (CCA) doing its duty to protect the public. To another part of the town, it embodies the government taking away essential laborers from Fieldale Farms Corporation — a family-owned business that is one of the largest poultry producers in the world.

In one part, it signifies the sadness of a counselor at the Community Service Center whose brother-in-law was deported. To another part, it is evidence of a problem that a Tea Party activist’s three-step plan can fix.

A look into Gainesville is a look into the various butting heads immersed in the immigration debate. All the contrasting dimensions surrounding this issue make this point of contention extremely heated and difficult to resolve. Until all those actors look at this image and see the same view, they will never reach consensus.

Surprisingly enough, Martha Zoller — conservative talk show host, former Republican Congressional candidate and Tea Party activist — puts it simply.

“We have to secure the border, stop immigrants from overstaying their visa and provide work permits that are not tied to citizenship,” she said.

In her view, America has placed a lot of Band-Aids on this problem (the detention center is just example of that). To her, you need to “enforce it or change it because where does it stop?”

A quick listen will make one believe that perhaps it is that simple. There are only three steps to consensus.

But Zoller’s remarks seem to rest on a different platform than another part of the town. As the average observer in Gainesville will tell you, the laws that politicians spout and implement change a place beyond what they can see.

The recent Georgia immigration laws — that place more of the enforcement responsibility on local agencies — had a “chilling impact” on the documented and undocumented in this town, Community Service Center Director Phillippa Lewis Moss says. She saw a decline in the immigrant influence in the schools, in the city’s center and in the overall culture. Even before the law was implemented, the demographics of Georgia shifted.

“If someone were to ask me what the feeling is, it wouldn’t be anger,” Moss says. “It would be sadness having the welcome mat being rolled up and put away.” Does Zoller know that?

Lilliana Padia — former family educator at the Community Center who is married to an undocumented immigrant — has learnt how important that welcome mat is.

“It’s sad that people think it’s so easy, this whole process,” she said. “But now it’s affected my family.”

If Zoller implemented her plan, would the necessary law exacerbate the issue that Moss and Padia face? Perhaps, from a legal point of view, the idea that these laws strike fear within the immigrant community and cause them to voluntarily deport is not an issue; it just shows the law is serving its purpose.

But beyond the individual human impact, there is undoubtedly another dimension worth considering before making assumptions about immigration law.

A zoom into Fieldale Farms will show that other dimension. After a complete audit of the company’s labor three years ago, 600 unauthorized workers lost their job.

“There were good people we hated to let go but as an employer we could not risk that,” Jon Allen from Fieldale Human Resources said. “The alternative is to end up in an orange jumpsuit which I have no desire of doing.”

One would expect this example to just highlight the impact on the workers, not the company. But it is a lose-lose situation. As immigrants who are ready for work are blocked from helping this company, Fieldale Farms suffers.

Before the audit, the plant’s laborers had become highly skilled, after working at the company for 10, 12 or 15 years, Allen said. Now, Fieldale Farms doesn’t see the same demand for work or caliber in labor. After the audit, turnover has tripled.

Fieldale Farms is not an anomaly. According to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jeremy Redmon, Georgia lost 75 million dollars in crop losses after 287g was passed, highlighting the American dependence on the immigration population. That economic dependence shifts the legal debate away from the emotional and into the tangible.

It is almost as if one part of Gainesville needs them and another part doesn’t want them. It is almost as if America needs them but doesn’t want them.

So it seems like the current solution (the scene over at the detention center) and the potential solutions (as championed by Zoller) overlook the current status quo — families who are broken apart, workers that lose their job and companies that suffer the consequences.

It seems like all the actors at all the different dimensions of this debate are seeing a different image. They don’t all see that cellblock in the detention center the same way.

A simple view to the other side of town may unify the community’s vision and pave the way for a unification of opinion as well. That simple step outside may be the difference between resolving this conflict and remaining in this contention.

The only real resolution to this disunity will come from work done by people like Haydee De La Fuente-Anderson, publisher of “Mexico Lindo” — a bilingual, Gainesville newspaper.

“It is important that [the Hispanics] know the language and it is important the local community know about their new neighbors,” Fuente-Anderson said. This press, she said, is not just a publication. It is an advocacy.

This ethnic newspaper not only raises the self-esteem of the immigration population — addressing the emotional dimension presented through Moss and Padia — but also provides information about the economic and legal dimensions.

Fuente-Anderson’s late husband wrote a letter to the Gainesville Times about the new Georgia law, continuing the education and exposure required in order to bring the entire community onto the same page. Even though his letter didn’t receive the desired positive reaction, it is a step in the right direction towards unification and away from contention.   

Away from the contention that exists in this community and in America; the contention between enforcement officers who deport the undocumented and the employers that employ them at an immigrant-dependent poultry plant, between a Gainesville Community counselor who sobs about her brother-in-law’s deportation and a passionate Republican who champions that the country must enforce the law or change it, between one side of the town and the other.

As these actors remain pitted against each other because of their inability to peer into the other side of Gainesville, our country’s conflict will remain unresolved. The solution doesn’t rest in Zoller’s three step plan’s or the detention center’s Band-Aid reaction.

It rests in the hands of the press who have the ability and the responsibility to showcase all sides of the story, to bring the politician to the counselor and the law enforcer to the employer, to bring one side of Gainesville to the other side of Gainesville, and to bring the multiple perspectives of America together.

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