In the wake of a raid at the Shogun Buffet on Brevard Road that sent 12 immigrant workers to jail last month, a Raleigh-based nonprofit is sponsoring a series of billboards across the state that aim to put a human face on immigration.
As North Carolina lawmakers consider changes that could make it harder for illegal immigrants to live in the state, Uniting NC, one of 19 state affiliates of the national group Welcoming America, has plans for public outreach in communities across the state, including digital billboards in Asheville, Charlotte and the Triangle area.
The billboards will feature humanistic images of immigrants alongside messages intended to “counteract some of the negative thinking and stereotypes” that are all too common in the state, says Kristin Collins, Uniting NC’s director. “We want to build a North Carolina that sees cultural diversity as a strength,” she explains, adding, “We see immigrants as a force that makes us stronger.”
Comments posted on news websites across the state regularly feature hate speech directed against immigrants. Meanwhile, the General Assembly has considered several immigration-related bills in the past year; one law already approved requires local governments and employers with at least 25 workers to use a federal program to screen new hires for their immigration status. And in late December, the Associated Press reported that a Statehouse committee met to discuss further changes to North Carolina immigration law.
The last two decades have seen a dramatic increase in immigration to the state by people from Asian, Middle Eastern and Central American nations. According to census data, North Carolina’s foreign-born population rose from 1.7 percent in 1990 to 5.3 percent in 2000 to 7 percent in 2008. In the latter year, the state was home to 641,130 immigrants — roughly equivalent to the total population of Charlotte. North Carolina’s Hispanic population saw the greatest increase, growing an average of 13.5 percent per year between 1990 and 2005.
Yet as those numbers have swelled, “We’ve noticed that the climate for all immigrants — not just the undocumented — is becoming really negative,” says Collins. Since Sept. 11, in particular, “There’s a lot of fear and suspicion about Muslims,” she reports. “So we’re trying to be inclusive and create a vision. … Not that all immigrants are saintly people — just that they’re people. They can’t be pinned down with statistics.”
As for the anti-immigrant vitriol, “We think that most people don’t have those extreme viewpoints, and we want to try to bring in the moderate and humane voices, the people who haven’t thought deeply about this, and help them think it through.”
At a Dec. 13 Uniting North Carolina press conference in Raleigh held to launch the billboard campaign, speakers included major contributors and leaders of several religious groups. The project also received donations from supporters via LoudSauce, a website that bills itself as “the first crowd-funded media-buying platform that lets you spread the word about ideas that matter.”
“It’s the holidays,” says Collins. “All faiths have instructions about welcoming the stranger and treating your neighbor with kindness and respect.” Besides the billboards, the campaign will also include special events in each community, she notes.
“We want to change the tone before North Carolina becomes the site of hurtful controversies like the ones we’ve seen in Arizona, Alabama and other states,” the campaign’s website explains. “It’s time to leave behind polarization and fear and start building strong communities where all people have a fair chance to achieve their potential.”
Nine of the 12 people arrested in the Shogun raid have since been released on bail; the other three were transferred to a holding facility in Atlanta. Meanwhile, about 100 people marched through downtown Asheville Dec. 18 to protest the raid, chanting, “We are here; we are not leaving,” and “Justice for the arrested.”
Hendersonville resident Jill Drzewiecki Rios shares those concerns. She and her husband, the Rev. Austin Rios, work with the mostly immigrant congregation at La Capilla de Santa Maria Episcopal church. “We believe in moral progress,” she says, adding, “Our immigration system needs updating.
“I like to remind people, when they say immigration is illegal, you know, slavery was once legal in this country. It was not legal for women to vote.” Those things, says Drzewiecki Rios, had to change.
“I understand: People are scared, the economy sucks, and I feel that too,” she continues, “but at the end of the day, these are my brothers and sisters. It’s pretty simple for me. There are times I fear for North Carolina. It’s just shocking to me that people can be so hateful. I think we need to counter those messages.”
To learn more about Uniting North Carolina, go to www.unitingnc.org. Click here for the group’s online funding campaign.