Today the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a new report entitled “Under Siege:  Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South.”  SLPC report adds to the mounting evidence pointing to the harmful impact that the absence of a functioning immigration system is having on Latinos and immigrant communities.

SPLC investigators interviewed and surveyed 500 low-income Latinos — including U.S. citizens, legal residents, and undocumented immigrants — in the South and found a population “under siege and living in fear — fear of the police, fear of the government and fear of criminals who prey on immigrants because of their vulnerability.”

Among their findings:

  • 68% of respondents say they suffer racism in their daily life.
  • 41% of respondents say they have experienced wage theft and were not paid for work performed.  In New Orleans, 80% reported wage theft.
  • 32% reported on-the-job injuries.
  • In the South the rate of deaths for Mexican workers was 1 in 6,200 – more than double the national average.
  • 77% of Latina women say sexual harassment is a major problem on the job.
  • 47% of respondents know someone treated unfairly by police.

The report focuses on the South, which experienced an immigration explosion beginning in the 1990s.  By 2006, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee had 1.6 million Latinos.  Latinos in the South are confronted with weak labor laws and protections, which means it is even more difficult for those suffering from wage theft, workplace discrimination, and workplace injuries to seek justice.  The degree of challenges Latinos face and the disturbing personal stories documented by SLPC are truly eye-opening.

One North Carolina grower stated:

“The North won the War on paper, but we confederates actually won because we kept our slaves.  First we had sharecroppers, then tenant farmers, and now we have Mexicans.

More than half of the 287(g) agreements between police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are in the South and have left all Latinos — regardless of immigration status — fearful of contacting the police and vulnerable to criminals who target them for “amigo shopping,” and refer to Latinos as “walking ATMs.”  In Nashville, 73% of Latinos surveyed said they are reluctant to cooperate with police because of 287(g), and in Charlotte, 66% said they are less willing to speak with the police.

SPLC also found that Latina women in the South suffer sexual harassment in the workplace as male supervisors demand sexual favors and threaten to call ICE if the women complain.  One woman in Nashville stated:

“They want to intimidate with the simple fact of saying, ‘You are an illegal and I can call immigration.’ And they use that fact so that they can harass.”

SPLC also documented rampant housing discrimination, failure of government agencies to comply with civil rights law, pervasive language barriers to receiving services or justice in the courts, as well as isolation, hostility, hatred, and overt discrimination.  One U.S. citizen related how she was told “Mexicanos” were not welcome in her church.  A U.S. citizen high school student explained that she is regularly taunted with “go back to Mexico,” and “learn English.”   The report cites a 2007 study of Durham County, NC where 32% of the 46 Latino high school students surveyed had attempted suicide.

The SPLC report reveals the “human toll of failed policies that relegate millions of people to an underground economy”and is further evidence that the anti-immigrant tenor of the national immigration debate has cultivated unfettered hatred and bigotry against an entire ethnic population.  Words and rhetoric have real-world consequences for innocent individuals.  By demonizing undocumented immigrants, a target has been painted on the backs of legal immigrants and even U.S. citizens who are now subject to increased hostility, hate, and discrimination.