The executive director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, N.C., is neither Latina nor from North Carolina.
Jess George is from upstate New York. After her family moved to North Carolina in 1996, she went to college and got married. She has made the state her home—and immigrant rights her cause.
George says that resistance to demographic change is widespread: The recession has created a friendly climate for established prejudices and misconceptions. What’s needed, she says, is to teach the community that change is an opportunity, because the state’s future depends on the progress that newcomers and new generations of American citizens can make.
In her own words, George tells the story of challenges to integration in Charlotte.
“We tell the story of the 13 towers in five years. When I first moved to Charlotte, my husband and I were looking for jobs. For a few years I used to drive him to work every night, and I got to see how the landscape changed drastically. From the late ’90s to the early 2000s, our city built 13 skyscrapers in five years, and we asked, ‘Why?’
“Charlotte was going through this boom time. We were building skyscrapers to attract businesses. When you attract businesses, you attract people and they have families; they need schools, roads, shopping centers, football arenas, basketball stadiums, movie theaters. They also have mansions and houses and lawns to be manicured, and they need all these things to make their lifestyles enjoyable and fit the idea of the American upper-middle class and middle class. They needed hotels for the new conventions and visitors. We needed restaurants and all these amenities to make Charlotte a world-class city.
“But, who were building these skyscrapers, the houses in the suburbs, working in the hotels and the restaurants, taking care of the children? Immigrant labor.
“Our city attracted the fastest-growing foreign population in the country: Latinos. From 1990 to 2010, the Latino population in our county, Mecklenburg, grew 1,500 percent. The backbone of the city was built by immigrant labor, but the sad story is that we did all these things to make my life—me, a white middle-class American—easier, but we did nothing to make the life of the immigrant easier. We did not change any of our national policies. We owe this economic and cultural debt of gratitude to these thousands of families that helped made our lives easier, and what do they get in exchange? They’ve been rejected, pushed to the margins of our community. In fact, North Carolina saw a vast increase in our nativist and hate groups. We have 23 anti-immigrant groups, several of whom were founded here and have gone nationwide.
“This incredible demographic shift brought on by economic prosperity, built on the backs of immigrants, was met with this kind of, ‘Well, we don’t care who you are, just don’t let me see you, hear you, see your food, read signs in Spanish because your difference makes me uncomfortable.’
“That’s the message that immigrants continue to hear in our community. That is really the hypocrisy of cities like Charlotte and states like North Carolina.
“And we are not alone.”
Maribel Hastings is a senior adviser and correspondent for America's Voice.
This article appears in the May 11, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.