Sunday, October 29, 2006

Browning Appalachia

... by which I mean that Mexicans, and other Latin Americans, some of them illegal, are becoming the new face of Appalachia. Kim Cobb has been writing articles for the Houston Chronicle about the influx of Hispanic immigrants to Morristown, Tennessee (here , here. here, here). Rather than being a cause of social instability, as critics claim, the immigrants are propping up what was once a dying region of the country. Moreover, they raise questions about the nature of the so-called problem of illegal immigration and "broken borders": are they not overwhelmingly about culture and ethnicity rather than law and crime? And can rural America survive without them?
Hamblen County's resident Latino population jumped from a few hundred to as many as 10,000 in the past decade, and the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that more than half the immigrants arriving in southeastern communities are illegal. Cumberland Avenue on the town's south side has been transformed into a commercial strip dominated by Latino restaurants, specialty stores and used-car lots.

"I mean, right here, where our church is, is Little Mexico," said the Rev. William Burton of Iglesia Bautista La Gran Comision, or The Great Commission Baptist Church.

The pastor is an exuberant, round-faced white man who speaks the Spanish he learned as a missionary in Venezuela with a decidedly Tennessee accent. His congregation began as a Bible study group at another Southern Baptist church. The study group grew, and Burton eventually began offering an early service on Sunday mornings in Spanish.

But, the young minister said, his devotion to the newcomers created resentment among some of the church's established members. It was never put into words, but Burton felt the challenge to choose "between us and them."

"Of course, my heart was with 'them,' " he said.

Burton quit and took his new flock with him. Six years down the road, La Gran Comision is flourishing in a salmon-colored stucco building that used to be a grocery store. ...

Morristown does not fit the Appalachian stereotype of quaint villages and hillbilly shacks.

It's a factory town with the usual Ameri-bland assortment of burger joints, drugstores, a Wal-Mart. For generations, the spectacular mountain greenery visible from the highest points in town was a wall between Morristown and change.

But change has come. Now, when residents say they don't like to travel the area along South Cumberland Avenue after dark, they mean they fear the newest arrivals who frequent the Latino businesses there.

That fear may be overblown. Roger Overholt, the chief of police, said the crime rate among Latinos is not much different from that of their neighbors. Cases of public intoxication and cars being abandoned after accidents increased with the arrival of Latinos, he said. But an education campaign about American law reduced the problem.

Morristown averages one homicide a year. There were five in 2002, which Overholt called "probably our worst year." None involved Latinos killing whites.

Still, the perception of danger is strong. ...

The khaki-clad state troopers hup-hupped into formation on opposite sides of the courthouse lawn, wearing riot gear and clutching batons.

About 100 state and local officers stood on the square this summer, some carrying M-16 rifles. They were more than a match for an equal number of mostly middle-aged locals arriving for the anti-illegal immigration rally.

It was one of the most confounding spectacles this little town of 25,000 had ever seen.

The only way to step on the lawn between the rows of troopers was through a security checkpoint, surrendering anything that looked like it could be used as a weapon. Ted Mitchell and his flag never made it in.

"It's an American flag!" Mitchell sputtered.

You can bring the flag into the rally, a police officer explained, but you have to leave your flag pole.

Mitchell's face got redder. His yelling got louder. In an instant the 62-year-old man was scuffling with the police. They pushed him to the ground, cuffed him and carted him off in a police car.

By the time lame-duck County Commissioner Tom Lowe was ready to start the rally, the police helicopter overhead was so loud that even people standing a few feet away couldn't hear him.

"They brought in all this overwhelming force like there was going to be some kind of violence," Lowe shouted over the din. "I understand this to be a violation of my constitutional rights!"

What would make a little town like this prepare for battle on the courthouse lawn?

Local police officials said they had gathered information that members of the Ku Klux Klan, a familiar presence in East Tennessee, might show up and force a confrontation. People identified as Klan members had attended previous anti-immigrant rallies in the Morristown area.


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