In Immigrant Georgia, New Echoes of an Old History (USA)





The Coke-bottle glasses of hindsight can leave even profound historical miseries all blurry with sentimentality. That's one way to explain the Savannah Irish Festival, a two-day celebration of the Great Famine's great contribution to this lovely Southern city — the migration of thousands of starving laborers who toted barges, lifted bales, dug ditches and cellars, and put down roots here in the mid-1800's.

Their descendants crowded the Savannah Civic Center for the festival, eating corned-beef sandwiches, drinking Guinness and applauding the young step dancers who thundered across the stage, tossing their auburn ringlets. Vendors sold teapots and cookbooks and those itchy, kitschy sweaters and scarves that have become the worldwide uniform of warm, fuzzy Irishness.

It is hard to imagine a tubercular immigrant, knee deep in cellar muck, dreaming that his adopted city would one day commemorate his sacrifice with a party. Unskilled Irish immigrants were abused and despised back then, chained to a life of poverty and hard labor that bonded them — at least for a little while — with enslaved African-Americans.

The parallels with the present day are too obvious to ignore. Georgia is undergoing another demographic shift, as Mexican immigrants flock to its farms, mills, processing plants and cities. The Latino immigrant population has soared in the last 10 years and exploded in the last 5, to an estimated 650,000 in a state of nine million. Some experts say the real immigrant number is double that. At least half of the newcomers are illegal, unskilled laborers who, like their Irish predecessors, want "any job, but now."

Anti-immigrant groups have taken to calling the state "Georgiafornia," and have vowed to fight the Latino influx. As Congress takes up immigration legislation in coming weeks, the Republicans who control the Georgia Legislature have been way ahead of them, having already put the issue at the top of their agenda.


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