- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2000

You can't miss the growing Spanish-speaking population in this little town in the middle of North Carolina.
Eighty percent of the workers at Siler City's two poultry plants are Hispanic, as are 40 percent of students in the local elementary school.
Hispanics represent the fastest-growing segment of the population nationwide, a trend reflected in communities like Siler City, a town of 5,500 about 50 miles west of Raleigh.
To some, that's a problem. They voiced their concern at a Feb. 19 rally led by former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke that underscored the tension involving the rapid, unprecedented influx of Hispanic immigrants into North Carolina.
"It's truly an American tragedy, what's happening in Siler City, and it's symbolic of what's happening to America," Mr. Duke said in a telephone interview.
Some, like Mr. Duke and the 100 or so people who attended the rally, say the burgeoning Hispanic population is creating a burden on the local economy. Many disagree.
"They come to work," said Gloria Maldonado of The Helping Hands Center, a local nonprofit agency. "If they find an opening, it's because there's somebody else who wouldn't fill the opening."
Francisco Herrera, a Nicaraguan native and sanitation worker at the Gold Kist poultry plant, said Hispanics simply want to do their jobs and be left alone.
"We don't fight with anybody," he said. "We only work."
In North Carolina, the number of year-round Hispanic residents has exploded. The Census Bureau says the number has risen from about 77,000 in 1990 to 161,000 two years ago. Other experts say that figure is far too low, estimating the number at 349,000 last year.
Most Hispanics were drawn to the state by its abundant jobs and an unemployment rate as low as 2 percent in some areas.
But some citizens and lawmakers believe the sudden flood of newcomers is affecting government agencies, schools, even local traditions.
Richard Vanderford, a local auto shop owner who helped organize the rally, said in his request for a rally permit that "non-American workers" are creating "an unburdenable strain on the indigenous residents here, our traditions, our institutions and our infrastructure."
Mr. Vanderford, wearing a Confederate flag ring on his left hand, refused to discuss the rally or name any of his supporters.
"I don't believe there's anybody who's a white, working-class person who doesn't support me," he said, before ordering a reporter off his property.
The subject of Spanish-speaking immigrants has taken a higher public profile in North Carolina recently.
In September, hundreds of residents attended a Chatham County Board of Education meeting to discuss concerns about Siler City Elementary School, where more than 40 percent of the students are Hispanic.
Last month, commissioners in Pitt County, in eastern North Carolina, rejected a proposal to make English the official language for government business.
Meanwhile, the New York-based ProjectUSA has placed billboards in Gastonia, Asheville, Hendersonville and Winston-Salem blaming immigrants for traffic congestion, urban sprawl and overcrowded schools.
To crack down on the growing number of illegal immigrants, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has established "quick-response teams" in Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greer, S.C. According to the INS, North Carolina was home to an estimated 22,000 undocumented immigrants in 1996.
As for Mr. Duke, he is trying to a launch a recall of Chatham County Commission Chairman Rick Givens, who denounced illegal immigrants last year but recently softened his stance after what he called a "very humbling" trip to Mexico.
Mr. Duke, head of the New Orleans-based National Organization for European American Rights, said longtime Siler City residents are concerned about the growing number of immigrants.
He said the rally was meant to draw attention to lax enforcement of immigration laws by the INS and the economic and social burden Hispanics put on the community.
District Court Judge Alonzo Coleman said he has noticed an increase in the number of Hispanics being charged with crimes, particularly those involving drugs and prostitution.
Still, he said he believes immigrants make an important contribution to the local economy.
"These people are not coming here to wreck this community or to corrupt our form of government," he said. "They're coming here because they admire it."

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