American Renaissance

An International Explosion

Rick Badie, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 22

Gwinnett County’s ethnic transformation was lightning fast — in a demographic heartbeat, say some.

It wasn’t so long ago that Hispanics and Asians went hardly noticed here.

“Seventeen years ago, we had maybe 5,000 Hispanics and 3,500 or so Asians,” recalled Percy Scott, who oversees a county panel that mediates cultural disputes between neighbors.

“I would see Hispanics along I-85 and Ga. Highway 316 — some in the back of pickup trucks — generally with a white guy driving, heading toward a work site.

“Then, all of a sudden, people are walking around the courthouse, speaking Spanish and other languages. The change appeared suddenly, and it will continue because we’re not even tapped out yet.”

Indeed, Gwinnett is a migration magnet.

In 1990, it outpaced other metro Atlanta counties with a 50 percent spike in its immigrant population. Its foreign-born population leads the region, accounting for nearly 17 percent of the county’s overall population of roughly 650,000. It’s been described as a mini-Ellis Island by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank.

Here, people with far-flung roots chase their American dream — jobs, good schools, home and business ownership. The 100,000 or so foreigners who live here are a potpourri of Asians, Hispanics and Eastern Europeans, with a smattering of folks from places like the West Indies.

“I think Koreans and entrepreneurs [from India] have brought a lot of money into Gwinnett County,” said Deborah Duchon, a migration expert at Georgia State University.

“Those guys who own the Dunkin’ Donuts and all that have brought money into the country to invest. That provides employment for their families, adds to the tax base and provides a service to the community.

“One trend that’s interesting is that a lot of the Mexican and Central American workers — mostly males — are staying here because crossing the border [illegally] is so difficult. That brings more kids into the school system, more women into the picture and makes it more of a community.”

It’s a community where food from India, Thailand, Korea and elsewhere can be found in even the most remote corners of the county.

Where international performers — such as Wei Chen, a dancer from the Beijing Dance Academy, and Luis Miguel, the Latin crooner — perform to sold-out crowds at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Where soccer and cricket are played in the parks.

Where more than 100 foreign languages are spoken in public schools, Spanish being the most common native tongue.

“Gwinnett is a very popular place right now,” said Grace Yoon, a Realtor with Re/Max Greater Atlanta, whose mostly Asian clientele buys houses locally with an average selling price of $210,000.

“Many are first-time home buyers,” she said. “People are interested because of the school district and its convenience to I-85 and I-285.”

Why Gwinnett as opposed to any other county?

Some experts and observers say Atlanta’s economy, strong for decades, spawned and continues to expand the county’s ethnic network.

“If there aren’t jobs, they aren’t going to come,” said Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia demographer who said Gwinnett’s diversity occurred in “a demographic heartbeat.”

“Immigrants don’t go places with high unemployment rates,” he said. “They go to places with jobs, become entrepreneurs, open grocery stores and restaurants. They come with their families and friends.”

In Duluth, there’s “the new Korea town,” a 3-mile radius of retail shops and services off Pleasant Hill Road and Satellite, Steve Reynolds and Peachtree Industrial boulevards. Global Mall, a two-story retail center off Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85, has become a destination for Indian-American consumers. Spanish storefront signs beckon from any main road in the county.

Then there are the subdivisions such as West Park Place off U.S. 78, where so many Indian-Americans live “you’d think you lived in India,” said Harin Contractor, a UGA senior who lives in the neighborhood.

“There’s a huge Indian-American presence in this county,” he said. “I have lived in Atlanta 19 out of the 20 years of my life, so I have seen firsthand the incredible increase in the Indian-American population in Atlanta, and especially in Gwinnett.”

Scott, the county official, compared the local growth spurt with a migration cycle he witnessed while living in Cambridge, Mass., where waves of Latin American refugees moved in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“People came to Gwinnett because of jobs, and they have been successful,” he said. “Now, it’s where their family members and friends come, and they aren’t doing bad either. We’re going to continue to get the brunt of that type of growth for a long time because people are doing well.”

But the rapid influx of a larger number of immigrants, when combined with other newcomers in pursuit of the same opportunities, has created pressing social problems, too.

Police are trying to get a handle on Hispanic gang activity. The county school system struggles to build schools to match the growth. It will spend $24.7 million on English-language services during the current school year.

Such issues have caused some observers to question whether federal immigration laws sufficiently control the number of foreigners who move to the United States.

Moreover, illegal immigration has become a point of contention. An estimated 8 million to 12 million illegals live in the United States; Georgia is home to an estimated 228,000 foreigners who lack proper documentation.

Against that backdrop, President Bush recently called for an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system to grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers. It has met with mixed reactions, mostly unfavorable.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released in mid-January showed that 56 percent of respondents disapproved of Bush’s proposal to allow millions of illegal immigrants to gain legal status and keep their jobs; 34 percent approved.

“I pray the Bush proposal does not pass,” said Jimmy Herchek, a Lawrenceville resident who praised local leaders and school officials with managing the changes caused by the migration wave.

“Illegal immigration poses just as great a threat to our American way of life as terrorism,” he said.

“Legal immigrants have been very positive for Gwinnett, but the overwhelming numbers of illegal immigrants are overcrowding schools, overloading our health care and welfare systems, and creating other unwelcome burdens like gang activity.”

Still, the economic and cultural contributions of the newcomers are noteworthy. In 2003, the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia put Gwinnett’s Hispanic buying power at $1.9 billion; Asian buying power was $1.5 billion.

In essence, “Gwinnett County is no longer a suburb,” said Duchon, the migration expert at GSU.

“It’s a major metropolitan area of its own. You now have second generations who have been educated and brought up here. When we first started seeing the change, we were amazed.”