Response to Latino Migration
While a number of middle-class Latino professionals live in South Carolina, the majority of Latinos are new, working-class migrants. Some observers are quick to point out the positive economic impact this new low-wage workforce has had in the state particularly in sustaining South Carolina’s construction, poultry processing, hospitality, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors. Others point to Latinos’ buying power, estimated at $3.5 billion for the Mexican migrant population alone in 2006.7
In recent years, however, a growing number of South Carolinians have charged that working-class Latino migrants in the state act as a drain on resources, especially in the areas of education and health care. It is true that South Carolina’s public schools have had to absorb large numbers of migrants in recent years, resulting in a larger portion of the state education budget being directed toward English language classes (ESOL) in schools. In a number of schools across the state, Latino children make up half of the student body. Given that most Latinos have resided in the state less than 15 years, and most come directly from Latin America, the majority of Latino migrant children and adults lack English skills. Some school districts also offer English classes for adults.
Health care administrators have expressed concern over the rising costs associated with emergency health care for Latino migrants, most of whom lack health insurance. As of 2007, however, no hard data exist regarding the extent of such costs. Several University of South Carolina (USC) studies indicate that most working-class Latinos forgo health care for themselves because of the high cost or other barriers, like language and transportation. But if they are parents, they do make an effort to see that their children receive health care.
State legislators and local officials have expressed concern over the growing number of unauthorized Latino migrants and their potential cost to state and local governments. Local ordinances passed in Beaufort, Dorchester, and Pickens counties in late 2006 aim at punishing employers who knowingly hire unauthorized migrants, and state legislators have introduced and debated a number of bills between 2004 and 2007 that mimic legislation passed in the neighboring states of North Carolina and Georgia. If made law, some of the bills would authorize local law enforcement to arrest undocumented migrants, deny workman’s compensation to unauthorized Latino migrants injured on the job, and require
employers to verify the legal residency of any potential employee. Other bills, such as those calling for denying education to children of unauthorized migrants, are clearly unconstitutional.
At the same time, a variety of organizations and institutions have become advocates for the rights of Latinos in the state. These include Latino organizations such as Acercamiento Hispano and the South Carolina Hispanic Leadership Council in the midlands; Clrculo Hispano Americano de Charleston and Latinos en Accion in Myrtle Beach; and the Latin American Council in Hilton Head, among others. Catholic and Protestant churches have also responded to the spiritual and material needs of new Latino migrants, providing worship services in Spanish, English-language classes, and sometimes clothing and food for Latinos. South Carolina’s Christian Action Council, among other groups in the state, has taken a strong stand against punitive legislation that would discriminate against new migrants. When thousands of Latino migrants held rallies in South Carolina in early April 2006, a large number of non-Latinos were on hand to support their claims for justice; during public hearings in late 2006 and early 2007 on proposed legislation regarding unauthorized migrants, many who spoke against the bills pointed to Latinos’ economic and cultural contributions to the state.
For many native South Carolinians, the real danger posed by new, mostly non-English-speaking migrants is that they are altering the so-called southern culture. In 1987 lawmakers made English the state’s official language (although no penalties for noncompliance were attached), and efforts in Hilton Head Island in 2007 to give town employees a bonus for learning Spanish came under attack from local residents. In letters to the editor and on Internet blogs, a rising chorus of voices speak out against increasing Latino migration, intimating that Latinos are attempting to change the state and region into another Mexico. In a state with a long history of troubled white-black relations, many working-class Latinos are enduring a form of racialization by some South Carolinians who are resisting change. Yet as the numbers of Latinos in the state steadily rise, change is sure to continue.
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