Without citizenship, many Latinos in this Atlanta suburb stay silent

Without citizenship, many Latinos in this Atlanta suburb stay silent

Originally Published in The Washington Post

Maria Sacchetti - February 12, 2021

DORAVILLE, Ga. – Pickup trucks splattered with mud, cargo vans topped with aluminum ladders and trailers carrying lawn mowers are everywhere in this Atlanta suburb.

For Latino residents, who make up more than 55 percent of the population of 10,000, the trucks are a symbol of their hard work, rolling out before dawn and returning home after dark. But other residents of this industrial city that was once predominantly White want these trucks barred from parking on neighborhood streets, because they think they are “unsightly,” road-clogging and a turnoff to home buyers.

The dispute landed in the hands of a city council that looks much more like the Doraville of a generation ago than the Doraville of today, as the mayor and five council members are White, one is Black and none are Latino.

“It simply comes down to one simple fact: What do you want the residential neighborhoods in the city of Doraville to look like?” Thom Abbott, a planning commission member at the time, said at a recent meeting.

“This is what Doraville looks like,” Geovani Serrano, 25, an immigrant from Mexico, said in exasperation after the meeting, referring to the city’s parade of trucks.

An American flag flies near a Mexican one in Doraville. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post)

Like Serrano, nearly 8 in 10 Latino adults living in Doraville are not U.S. citizens — and cannot vote, receive federal stimulus payments, apply for driver’s licenses or run for elective office. Many are also hesitant to speak up or get involved with anything political, even the policing of where they park.

President Biden has proposed a broad citizenship bill that, if passed by Congress, could flip that dynamic in communities such as Doraville by allowing about 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship and making it easier for 9 million legal residents to take the test to become citizens. The effort would mark the first major push to integrate immigrants in more than three decades, opening a door to a greater role in running the communities where they have lived for years.

The legislation, which aides said could be introduced in Congress soon, faces steep odds. Democrats in the Senate would need to gain the support of at least 10 Republicans — a daunting task, given that similar attempts over the past two decades have failed and that GOP leaders already have deemed it too soft on immigration enforcement. Some Democratic lawmakers hope instead to use budget rules called “reconciliation,” which require only a majority vote, to pass legislation that would legalize at least 5 million immigrants in the coming months.

TOP: Buford Highway runs through Doraville and showcases the city's immigrant influences. It's also a busy highway where pedestrians are often injured. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Families shop at the Buford Highway Farmers Market. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Buford Highway is lined with plazas packed with businesses offering products, cuisine and services from many corners of the world. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post)

Many of Doraville’s undocumented residents have long lived in fear of being deported and are wary of civic engagement. Even some legal residents are hesitant to draw too much attention to themselves.

Barely half of Doraville’s households filled out U.S. Census forms last year, a gap that the mayor said could cost the city “hundreds of thousands” of dollars in government money that is divided up by population. Because undocumented immigrants are ineligible for driver’s licenses, many pay for taxis or walk most places — and Doraville has had one of the state’s highest rates of crashes, injuries and deaths involving pedestrians.

Sweeping changes to the immigration system could build trust between immigrant communities and the government, said Mayor Joseph Geierman (D).

“I’ve been very concerned for the last four years about how people in our immigrant communities are faring,” Geierman said. “I think there’s been a lot of distrust of government generally, whether it’s local, federal or state, because there’s been such a push to deport people.”

Since the 1990s, a steady flow of immigrants from Latin America and Asia have moved to Doraville, which is 15 miles northeast of Atlanta. The shift from a mostly White, blue-collar city to an international destination was rocky at first — a city councilor called Latino immigrants “freeloaders” in 2004 — but Doraville morphed into what some call a progressive oasis. The mayor is gay, and one council member is transgender. The city tilts Democrat in a state led by Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who ran a campaign ad in 2018 promising to round up undocumented immigrants arrested for crimes in his “big truck.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) speaks at a Make America Great Again rally with then-President Donald Trump in Macon, Ga., on Oct. 16. (Nicole Craine for The Washington Post)

Biden’s victory in Georgia in November gave immigrants in Doraville comfort and hope — which was then shaken by the city council’s debate about the work trucks.

Sandy Chavarria, 29, said Trump’s presidency traumatized many Latinos, even U.S. citizens like her. The year he was elected, she took a work trip to a mostly White rural county filled with Confederate flags. When her phone died and she needed to ask for directions, she had a panic attack.

“And I was born here. I have a license,” she said. “I’m a U.S. citizen, speak English. So I can’t even put into words what that means to people who are not born here.”

Her parents are Mexican immigrants and became naturalized citizens after Republican President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1986 that legalized nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. They now own two houses and sent three children to college, with another on the way. All six voted in the 2020 presidential election and celebrated Biden’s win.

Sandy Chavarria and her son Sergio play at Bernard Halpern Park in Doraville. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post)

But the next month, Chavarria was fighting a city council measure that would send police officers to the homes of immigrants, possibly traumatizing them once again. She read testimony from residents who were too anxious to address the city council themselves, yet worried about where they would park their trucks.

They asked her to speak for them.

“How will I provide for my kids who are in school and planning to go to college?” she said, reading one father’s thoughts to the council in December.

“I beg you not to place these ordinances, because they will affect my livelihood,” said another, who said his jobs had been reduced by half amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“By placing these laws,” he told her, “you are cutting my other leg off.”

As Chavarria told the council that the ordinance would cause “a lot of harm and a lot of discrimination,” the city clerk said she was out of time.

Supporters of the proposed rules said the trucks created safety concerns about narrow roads that often lack sidewalks, forcing walkers, children on bicycles and parents pushing strollers to move into the street. They said it is difficult for firetrucks and ambulances to squeeze by. And then there were aesthetic concerns, and some suggested requiring residents to remove tools and ladders from their trucks before parking in their own driveways.

Linda Rawlins, 73, said the beloved neighborhood where she has lived since 1969 was turning into a commercial zone.

“We are not trying to get rid of anybody,” said Rawlins, who is White. “It is a safety factor to do with these trucks and trailers on the street and unsightly equipment that needs to be put somewhere out of sight.”

In an interview after the meeting, Rawlins said she supported Trump but not all of his immigration positions, as she thinks immigrants should be allowed to apply for legal residency and citizenship so they can fully participate in civic life.

Abbott, the former planning commission member, said the measure wasn’t discriminatory.

“We had numerous comments made this evening that this is simply a racial-motivated piece of legislation,” he said at the December meeting. “And I am for this ordinance with the parking. I’m a White male. I’m not Hispanic, I’m not Asian, I’m not in any of these categories. And I voted to not allow my own personal vehicles to be parked in front of my own home.”

He recently resigned from the commission. No Latino residents spoke in favor of the measure that night in December.

LEFT: A sign along Buford Highway welcomes visitors. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Doraville is home to a massive fleet of work trucks -- including cargo vans topped with aluminum ladders and pickups hauling trailers loaded with lawn mowers and other lawn care equipment -- that many Latino residents say are symbols of their hard work. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post)

Gerald Evans, the lone Black city councilor, wondered whether they should ban all street parking so that Latino truck owners would not feel targeted. But others said the trucks were the problem. Councilor Stephe Koontz said the big trucks parked on her street made it difficult to get to her house. Others voiced similar concerns.

Councilor Rebekah Cohen Morris knew that many immigrants in Doraville would not challenge the city council. A former teacher now studying law, she told the council that there was no proof that parking trucks on the street lowered home values or presented a significant public safety risk.

The council approved the measure on a 5-to-1 vote in January, barring vehicles over 6,000 pounds from street parking. Cohen Morris cast the dissenting vote.

Sitting at home a few weeks later, she worried that the crackdown by a mostly White city council will create resentment and fear.

Cohen Morris lives next door to Ofelia Haro, 56, a formerly undocumented immigrant from Mexico who became a U.S. citizen and whose husband owns a truck. Haro is one of her children’s godparents.

“Most of the children here are citizens,” Cohen Morris said. “And they’re going to grow up and they’re going to remember all of this stuff that happened.”

Doraville City Council Member Rebekah Cohen Morris and her neighbor Ofelia Haro walk through the woods behind their houses. Haro is godmother to one of Cohen Morris's children. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post)

The mayor, who did not vote on the ordinance, stressed that the council listened to Latino community members. He noted that the panel scrapped plans to bar tools and ladders from trucks parked in driveways.

“The truth is that people did have a voice, and they were heard,” he said.

The new rules are now in effect and will be enforced by the city’s 54 police officers, seven of whom are Latino. After a six-month probationary period, the police will begin writing tickets. For now, written warnings will be issued in English and Spanish. And the police department has stressed that the issue is unrelated to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In Doraville’s winding, hilly neighborhoods on a recent day, work trucks were parked mostly in driveways, but a few remained on the streets. Many residents worried about the new ordinance, along with the message it sends.

“They tell you to go back to your country,” said a Guatemalan father of four who is undocumented and owns a truck that was parked outside his tidy ranch house. “Most of us come [to the United States] to work.”

Francisco, a 35-year-old tile layer from Guanajuato, Mexico, said sometimes his brother-in-law stays with his family, and they do not have enough room in the steep driveway for both men’s trucks. One has to park on the street.

Because Francisco is undocumented, he did not feel safe revealing his last name, and he said it had not occurred to him that he could challenge the city council about the truck ordinance.

Although he and his family have lived in Doraville for many years, he is now thinking: “Maybe it would be better to move away from here.”

A view of Doraville in early February. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post)

Editing by Jenna Johnson. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Design by Tara McCarty. Graphics by Joe Fox. Copy editing by Carrie Camillo.

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