09/20/07 — ECU professor talks about Hispanic immigration to Goldsboro Rotary Club

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ECU professor talks about Hispanic immigration to Goldsboro Rotary Club

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on September 20, 2007 1:56 PM

Immigration expert and East Carolina University anthropology professor David Griffith doesn't think the flow of immigrants into the United States, and into southeastern North Carolina in particular, is going to slow anytime soon.

Between the 1990 and the 2000 censuses, he explained, the number of immigrants entering the U.S. increased by 400 percent, and it hasn't slowed since.

"That pace has continued over the last seven years. We have a very robust immigration picture here," Griffith said, speaking to the Goldsboro Rotary Club Tuesday afternoon.

That trend is especially true in North Carolina, which has one of the nation's fastest growing Hispanic populations.

And, he added, Wayne County is something of a microcosm of that growth.

"In every community, immigration is an old and new phenomenon," Griffith said. "In every community there is a tension between those who are pluralistic (more accepting of immigration) and those who are legalistic (more focused on tighter regulations)."

The key for the federal government, he explained, is to find a balance between the two perspectives.

Only now, that isn't expected to happen until after the 2008 presidential election.

"Nothing's going to happen until 2009," he said. "I don't think that Washington has enough political courage to do it right now."

But that doesn't mean that he thinks the issue is completely dead.

Looking back through history, he explained that immigration reforms have often occurred in 20-year cycles, and that with the last significant legislation coming 1986, the country is poised for another change as voices on both sides of the issue -- those demanding tighter border controls and deportation of illegals, and those advocating guest worker programs and paths toward citizenship -- are growing steadily louder.

"That always happens before immigration reform. A lot of things are the same. We're ripe for it. The country is desperate for it," Griffith said. "We need comprehensive immigration reform. I think in order for it to be palatable to the American public it will have to include all those things -- guest workers, earned legalization and stronger enforcement."

However, he continued, the difference between now and then -- and the reason true reforms aren't likely to be addressed for another two years -- is the atmosphere surrounding the debates.

"What's different about this one, is that it seems to be more polarized than ever before," Griffith said. "Though I think that's just a reflection of how polarized everything is in U.S. politics."

And so, he continued, the most significant progress will likely have to be made on the local community level -- beginning with understanding what's happening.

In rural America -- and in southeastern North Carolina -- Griffith explained that most immigrants are still attracted by opportunities in the food industry, ranging from field labor to processing plants, though more and more are increasingly drawn by other occupations, especially construction.

He also said that while the South does deal with more migrant labor than other parts of the country, more and more immigrants are coming with their families in tow, which forms an interesting dynamic -- communities are created, local resources, such as social services and the health department are in greater demand, and families are often a mix of legal and illegal immigrants.

And all of that, Griffith continued, simply serves to highlight the need for local communities to work with their new members.

"You don't just lump them all together. Most of them, legal or not, are here to work. And most of them would like to learn English, but they just work so hard," he said. "But people really just need to attend cultural events and learn more about the people they're living near, and they'll probably feel less threatened by them."

But, he acknowledged that if a comprehensive immigration bill were to be passed, many of the concerns people have would likely be eased, creating more welcoming communities.

"I think if people had the perception that they are more legal, they would be more accepting, and I think if people had the perception that they were learning English, they would be more accepting," Griffith said.