The Carpet Capital of the World: Showing Immigrants the Doormat

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Matt Eich / LUCEO for TIME

(L-R) Olivar D. Velasquez (concealed) holds his son Isaac Velasquez, next to Oli E. Velasquez, Elizabeth Velasquez and Jenny Hurtado, at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Dalton, Georgia on July 17, 2011. "We have made our life here in Dalton," says Velasquez, "but now since this law is coming, I have seen a lot of people run away... I feel like a bird when they cut their wings...I might do good things for this country...but without papers, I can do nothing."

For much of the last quarter-century, Dalton, a city in Georgia's Appalachian foothills, energetically welcomed immigrants, mostly from Mexico, to work in the booming mills that made it the world's Carpet Capital. Now, however, with the U.S. housing market's collapse and the arrival of a new state immigration law, Dalton is sending a very different message: Go home.

On July 1, Georgia became the latest state to enact a restrictive immigration law, encouraging local authorities to participate in some of the federal government's most aggressive deportation programs. The law, which has drawn several legal challenges, creates an immigration enforcement board, with subpoena authority, that is to be partly appointed by the governor, Nathan Deal, a Republican. On Aug. 29, a federal judge temporarily blocked Alabama's new immigration law, believed to be the nation's most restrictive.

Perhaps nowhere in Georgia is the new law's effects more pronounced than Dalton. Just three decades ago, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded 1,500 Latinos here. Now, an estimated 48% of Dalton's 33,000 residents are Latino, as is 68% of its public school students, making up one of the most robust Mexican-American communities in the South. But that growth trajectory is being reversed.

No one knows how many Latinos have left Dalton in recent weeks. Driving along the streets of Dalton, past the Wal-Mart, Chick-fil-A and massive carpet mills, it's hard to overlook the signs that read, "HOUSE FOR CASH." If you want to know precisely who is leaving, just look for the heap of furniture on the front lawns. Until a few weeks ago, the Carnicería Latina cashed 300 paychecks each weekend, but now barely handles 150. Customers send $200 a week to relatives in Mexico instead of $400. The store's manager, Blanca Vega, is considering following her customers to Chattanooga, or Houston. "When you see them leaving, it hurts," Vega said on a recent afternoon, standing between bundles of chilies and cilantro.

Brian Anderson, president of the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce, says the new law isn't negatively impacting his largely corporate membership. As Georgia's legislature debated the bill last year, the chamber successfully fought a provision that would have held CEOs liable for hiring undocumented immigrants. The law will require companies of a certain size to use a federal electronic system, known as E-Verify, to check employees' citizenship status. That will help ailing carpet purveyors shrink job rolls. Says Dalton's mayor, David Pennington: "the mood's somber."

Since Mexicans began arriving en masse in the early 1990s, St. Joseph's Catholic Church had been one of the few places Dalton's whites and Latinos met on relatively equal footing. Ninety-percent of the church's 10,000 members are Latino. Since May, however, when Gov. Deal signed the immigration bill into law, attendance at St. Joseph's six Spanish-language masses has dropped 20%. One choir was reorganized because so many members have left town. "There had grown to be mutual affection between the two communities," says St. Joseph's priest, Father Paul Williams Jr., "but that's gone."

Rather than hanging out at the local mall, Dalton's Latino teenagers host house parties but they are still fearful the police will arrive and start the deportation process. They send messages via text, and Facebook, alerting friends to police roadblocks, designed partly to arrest people driving without licenses, which Georgia restricts to legal U.S. residents. (Illegal immigrants arrested on such offenses face deportation, under an agreement between the federal government and Whitfield County, which includes Dalton.) In recent years, local authorities have been cracking down on mostly immigrant gangs. Hardly anyone rides a bike. "It's like we're in a police state," says Enrique Barrangan, a 19-year-old Mexican.

Just past 9:30 on a recent Friday night, Sgt. Jamie Johnson, of the Dalton, Ga., police department, drove his SUV through a predominantly Latino neighborhood of sturdy brick buildings. "Go home!" one man shouted from a second-floor window, raising a middle finger. Earlier that evening, Sgt. Johnson's officers set up a roadblock. One car's back window read: "I'm white — so I can't be illegal." Soon, the streets were eerily quiet, especially for an unseasonably cool evening here in the Appalachian foothills. Driving past a soccer field that until recently was ruled by gangs, Sgt. Johnson observes, "You don't see them on the streets hanging out, anymore."