CHAMBLEE, Ga. (AP) — Odilio Perez aches for a life beyond Buford Highway, a six-lane stretch of strip malls and ethnic diversity that cuts through three counties in the New American South.
The thick-shouldered Guatemalan settled along the artery leading out of Atlanta more than a decade ago, answering the call of local officials who used the springboard of the 1996 Summer Olympics to make immigrants a centerpiece of the community's rebirth. Vacant car lots and whitewashed stores gave way to affordable apartments, an eclectic mix of shops and towering business signs that are a study in polyglot.
More than a dozen languages are spoken along the thoroughfare, and in each, the question is often the same: Where does the immigrant highway ultimately lead? Hardened enforcement policies and stagnant green-card programs tell immigrants that America has limited use for them, yet the actions of local officials and employers in places like Buford Highway signal that they are a vital part of the future.
"I've lived and worked here for 10 years without a problem," Perez, 33, said recently in the English he has learned since entering the country illegally. "I'd love to be a citizen, if I had a chance. But I went to a lawyer but he told me there's just no way."
Perez is part of a massive movement of immigrants who've bypassed traditional destinations such as New York and Los Angeles in favor of the South, bringing rapid change to cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; Orlando, Fla., and most recently, disaster-stricken New Orleans. In many cases, they've also settled in the suburbs instead of in urban pockets.
Perhaps no place captures the transformation as vividly as Buford Highway, where Korean shop owner Ruben Lee, for 20 years an expatriate in Argentina, rallies his workers in Spanish; where Chinese herbalist David Chu sells cure-alls in four Asian languages; and where Latino day laborers banter in Spanish and pre-Columbian dialects.
"This is not an enclave; this is a much newer phenomena," said Michael Fix, director of studies at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration think tank based in Washington.
People on both sides of the immigration debate say the highway is unique in its array of groups, and even more significant as an 8-mile example of the conflicting signals immigrants receive about whether they're wanted or needed in a country that has erected a Statue of Liberty and a border wall.
"There are mixed messages," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that lobbies for immigration control.
"We are very much welcoming to immigrants on places like Buford Highway, yet at the same time there are billions of dollars being spent on enforcing immigration laws," said Michelle Waslin, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center, which calls for less restrictive laws.
The highway was born when the Olympics peppered the Atlanta area with construction jobs, fueling a 300-percent increase in the Hispanic population in Georgia. Officials in the close-in, working-class suburb of Chamblee saw opportunity where others saw controversy and tailored their municipal codes to harness the convergence of newcomers.
The industrial businesses that were the highway's main employers had shut down in the 1980s and early 1990s, making the strip a casualty. As the games approached, Asian merchants attracted by inexpensive leases and a steady traffic conduit established restaurants, shops and wholesale stores along the highway.
Latino workers from several nations added to the dynamic. They lived in dilapidated apartments along the road. A few squatted in the woods where older residents like Jesse Burnett, 65, once set rabbit traps.
Tension surfaced at City Hall meetings. Longtime residents didn't want empty lots, but they didn't want foreign encampments either.
"It got pretty hectic for a lot of people," said Burnett, a musical instrument repairman who remembers customers coming into his shop and referring to the lot next door "being taken over" by Mexicans.
In response, Chamblee hired its first city manager, Kathy Brannon, a graduate of the local high school who offered solutions with a familiar Georgia accent.
She cracked down on flophouse landlords and strictly enforced loitering rules. Then the city enacted sweeping zoning that permitted retail and new apartments in the same area. Brannon reached out to community leaders to emphasize that Chamblee saw immigrants as a part of its future.
"You have to believe that the reason people come here is the same reason everybody's been coming, for that opportunity. Isn't that what we founded our country on?" Brannon said recently.
By the end of the 1990s, Chamblee had established a zone dubbed the "International Village," home to nearly 1,000 people, mostly immigrants, who live above shops, a new child care center and park. City Hall includes a glass-plated facade that commemorates the "Immigration and Redevelopment" period of its history, while a city-designed expansion of the International Village continues today.
Brannon, who is to retire this year, has left her successor with an outline for the next vision of Buford Highway: more bike paths, green space, and fewer strip malls, all meant to make the area not just a destination for immigrants but for Atlantans hungry for diversity. Already there are retail shops and apartments drawing nonimmigrant renters. Korean coffeehouses that would be the envy of Starbucks for their hipster aesthetics attract immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.
As much as Chamblee marks its success, however, it is under assault from a system that seems designed to defeat it.
Since the year Brannon established the International Village, nationwide workplace arrests on immigration violations have increased fivefold, and deportations of suspected illegal immigrants have doubled, according to Krikorian's group.
In 2006, law enforcement agencies in the Southeast followed the lead of their counterparts in the Southwest and enlisted in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement partnership that allows local officers to interview and fingerprint foreign-born people they detain.
Now the deportation program is closing in on Buford Highway. The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, which patrols communities just outside Chamblee, is awaiting final ICE approval to participate.
Even immigrants who want to be on the right side of the law stand little chance. The stepped-up enforcement has contributed to a decade-long backlog in legal residency applications and, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a wait list of about 1 million for citizenship.
Nikki Nguyen, 54, a Vietnam war refugee who petitioned for years to enter the U.S., relies on Latinos and other ethnic groups to patronize her nail salon off Buford Highway. She knows all too well the backlog that many of her clients are facing.
Twelve years ago, Nguyen filed to sponsor her sister to join her in the U.S. The case is still pending.
"The lawyer tells me there are so many applications for spouses and children that with a sister, it takes longer," she said. "It shouldn't."
Day laborers who cluster along the highway have their own problems. Construction has dried up in the recession, and Buford Highway sometimes looks like it did in the old days. Several immigrant workers have set up tents in one of last wooded areas left on the strip.
Few plan to leave. With families in the U.S., a network of potential employers and several years invested in Chamblee's immigrant vision, their fortunes are aligned with the highway's.
"This country says it doesn't want us, but when there's a job to be done, it needs us," said Perez. "We see the two faces of this country up close, and it's sometimes hard to know which is the real one."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press