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Easy Prey

Domingo Lopez Vargas was an early casualty in the brutal Battle of 'Georgiafornia'

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Three solved cases were enough to send a jolt through Cherokee County.

"It just floored everybody," says Lance. "These good old boys from Cherokee High School doing this?"

One of those charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault and abduction was 18-year-old Ben Cagle, an heir to one of the county's most powerful families; his grandparents founded the Cherokee Republican Party, which so dominates local politics that not a single Democrat ran for office last year in the county.

State Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, a candidate for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor next year and co-sponsor of anti-immigration bills, told CL last week he is not related to Ben Cagle.

Lopez' injuries kept him out of work for four months and left him with more than $4,500 in medical bills. He puzzles over his attackers' motives.

"They were young," he speculates, "and maybe they didn't have enough education. Or maybe their families are murderers who taught them to kill people, and that is what they have learned."

Or maybe they grew up in America's latest hotbed of anti-immigrant hate.

Day laborers are the most visible — and vulnerable — faces of a phenomenon that is rapidly transforming North Georgia into a diverse, multilingual place that one anti-immigration activist calls "Georgiafornia."Hispanic immigrants started arriving in Georgia in big numbers in the early 1990s, many helping to build venues for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Others headed north for Dalton's carpet factories and Gainesville's poultry plants. Some took to the street corners and started working day labor in Atlanta's booming suburbs, where cheap landscaping and construction help was - and is - in constant demand.

The official census numbers say Georgia's Hispanic population climbed 300 percent in the 1990s, adding up to 435,000 newcomers; demographers say the real number, counting illegal immigrants, is probably twice as high, and climbing. And like California before it, the state has become an epicenter for radical anti-immigration activism.

Immigration into other Southeastern states has generated low-level controversy and occasional outbursts of anti-immigrant rhetoric. In Georgia, many of the allegations are familiar: higher crime rates, littered streets, gang activity, millions spent on health care and education for "illegals."

But the backlash here has been unusually fierce. At first, the resistance was scattered, mostly taking the form of police crackdowns - arresting day laborers for loitering - and old-fashioned racial rhetoric.

In the formerly homogenous town of Chamblee, just north of Atlanta, white residents began complaining as early as 1992 about the "terrible, filthy people" standing on their street corners. At a town council meeting, one official infamously suggested that residents set bear traps in their yards to keep the Hispanics at bay.

The culture clash was predictable enough, says Remedios Gomez Arnau, Atlanta's consul general of Mexico.

"We're talking about a very new migration wave into Georgia," she says. "These are mostly people who have not been involved in traditional migrant work in the past. They're from the poorest, most rural and impoverished places in Mexico and Guatemala. And they are coming to a place where people are not familiar with migrant laborers, or with Hispanics."

A place where, in the words of State Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, "Everybody had a Southern accent when I was growing up. We were part of the Old South, for better or worse. We were all the same."

During the days of Jim Crow, some North Georgia towns enforced that sameness with a heavy hand. Signs warning black people to be out of town by sunset, some erected by local officials and others by Ku Klux Klan klaverns and White Citizens Councils, were familiar fixtures in the hills stretching north from Atlanta to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Those signs are long gone, but the mind-set lingers. "Prejudice is an old, old habit to break in Georgia," says Pilar Verdes, local news editor for Atlanta's Mundo Hispnico newspaper.

In every part of the United States where large numbers of Hispanic immigrants have moved, anti-immigration groups have sprung up in protest. But the backlash in Georgia has been fueled by hardcore neo-Nazis, Southern "heritage" activists and white-supremacist hate groups - all of them saying strikingly similar things about the "Mexican invasion."

To immigrant-rights activists like Tisha Tillman, Southeast regional director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the assaults in Canton show just how deep a chord these groups' messages are striking.

"The kids who committed these crimes had grown up listening to people saying that Hispanic people were lower forms of life," she says. "We know what kind of effect that rhetoric has. Day laborers are the canaries in the coal mines for immigrant communities - they're out there, exposed, as visible symbols of the community. When they're being targeted, you know there's something seriously wrong."

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