Originally created 01/26/03

Region lags in group's growth

The immigration of Mexican workers to the South is changing the face of Georgia's population - and the nation's.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week that Hispanics now total 13 percent of the nation's population, making them the largest minority group in the United States.

Unlike other communities in Georgia and many across the nation, the Augusta area has drawn relatively few of the newcomers. Hispanics make up 2.8 percent of the area's population.

But that does not mean Hispanics are invisible locally.

"We do have a large population of Hispanics in the area," said Carlos Barreras, a former vice president of Augusta's Asociacion Cultural Hispanoamericana.

"Mostly it's because of jobs, but you find Hispanics scattered all over the area."

The Census Bureau reported 13,467 people of Hispanic origin living in Richmond and 12 other counties around Augusta.

And the word "Hispanic" does not necessarily mean "Mexican."

"Hispanics are not one single cohesive group," Mr. Barreras said. "We don't all vote the same, and many of us do have an education."

Immigration comes in waves, but Augusta is not on the forefront, said Stephanie Bolton, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Georgia and co-author of The Needs of Georgia's New Latinos.

"Usually, one person decides to move to a particular place. Then, if it's good, they bring their family, and so on," Ms. Bolton said.

The new immigrants have been attracted to low-skill jobs, mainly in poultry, farming, construction and carpet manufacturing, she said.

The Augusta area, while supporting some agricultural industries, does not have the same industrial base as Gainesville, Dalton or Athens - hot spots for Mexican immigrants.

Augusta's four largest employers are Doctors Hospital, International Paper Co., the Medical College of Georgia and St. Joseph's Hospital, according to the Central Savannah River Area Regional Development Center.

These are all businesses that require higher levels of education that is usually beyond the reach of immigrant workers, Ms. Bohon said.

Mr. Barreras said many of the Augusta area's Hispanics come to the area because of assignment at Fort Gordon.

Others are doctors or professionals, he said.

Georgia has attracted new Mexican immigrants because of an open labor market during the 1990s. Traditional high-immigration areas, such as Texas, California and New York, have become saturated with less-skilled workers, according to Ms. Bohon's report.

She also noted that some Latinos see Georgia's labor market as more advanced than those of other states, in that even low-wage, low-skilled jobs, such as construction work, give people the opportunity to learn marketable job skills.

Few counties in Georgia, and no county in South Carolina, have reached the national average of Hispanics, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The highest concentration in Georgia is in Dalton's Whitfield County, with 22.6 percent.

Descendants of the new immigrants may come to Augusta in the future - if there are better educational opportunities for them, Ms. Bolton said.

"A more skilled work force means a better tax base and a more stable work force," she said. "I'd like to see Latinos as a group become more middle class rather than creating a new underclass in Georgia."

Reach Jeremy Craig at (706) 823-3409 or at jeremy.craig@augustachronicle.com.


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