Economic opportunities draw Latinos to NC and Mecklenburg County, but barriers remain
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In the late ‘70s, Jose Hernandez-Paris moved from Colombia with his family to Charlotte. He was getting ready to start middle school. He says there weren't many Latinos or other immigrants in the area at that time.
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Hernandez-Paris was part of the beginning of a wave of migration to the state and cities like Charlotte because of economic opportunities, according to researchers. By the 1980 census, Latinos made up around 1% of the population in Mecklenburg and in North Carolina. Statewide, there were around 56,000 Latinos. That’s changed drastically. Now there are more than 1 million Latinos living in the state. And 1 in 4 of them reside in Mecklenburg or Wake counties.
In the four decades Hernandez-Paris has been in Charlotte, the county’s Latino population has gone through exponential growth as well. Going from about 4,000 Latinos to now nearly 170,000, Mecklenburg has the largest Latino population in the state followed by Wake County with 128,000.
“We were such a small group of kids, of immigrant kids,” Hernandez-Paris said. “That kids locally didn't even understand what an international kid was like or an immigrant was like.”
UNC-Chapel Hill associate Director, Institute for the Study of the Americas Hannah Gill said this boom in Latino migration to southern cities like Charlotte and Atlanta began in the 1970s.
Most Latinos were coming to North Carolina from other U.S. states like California, Texas and Florida for employment opportunities, according to a 1999 article on Latinos in North Carolina published by UNC’s Popular Government Magazine.
“They were really growing quickly and creating jobs in manufacturing and agricultural sectors,” Gill said. “So a number of companies and industries, agribusinesses, textile mills, furniture companies, universities and the service industry really started recruiting people to come here to work.”
But she also cites other reasons for its continued growth. Leading up to the ‘70s, cyclical migration was more common. What that means is workers would go back and forth from their home countries in Latin America to the U.S. to work for a period of time each year. But, Gill said, as immigration has become more restrictive, the cyclical migration has become more difficult.
“So in some ways, people have not had a choice but to have to settle here and to bring their families here,” Gill said. “Otherwise, you know, it's like family separation is a real thing.”
She said that despite the economic attraction of the state, there are still challenges Latino immigrants have faced. Updated data in the “Land of Opportunity,” or Chetty study as it’s commonly referred to, indicate that low-income Latinos in Mecklenburg County are doing slightly better in terms of economic mobility than the median for other counties across the country that were part of the study. But, they still have less mobility than low-income white residents here.
“There are some major structural barriers that have persisted over the years,” she said.
Those structural barriers include access to higher education. For example, North Carolina doesn’t provide in-state tuition or financial aid to students in the country illegally regardless of how long they’ve lived in the state. Even for those who benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program.
Gill also mentioned other gaps in accessing basic needs like transportation. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia allow immigrants who are in the country illegally to get a driver’s license. North Carolina is not one of them.
“Barred access to driver's licenses to people who have been recruited to work here and yet aren't given the opportunity to even be mobile,” Gill said. “This is a persistent structural barrier that is a state law that persists and that really creates problems for mobility to access basic needs.”
Gill mentioned the lack of comprehensive immigration reform as another pain point for the Latino community.
“We haven't had immigration reform — comprehensive federal immigration reform — in decades. And that's certainly difficult for a lot of people,” Gill said. “We have major backlogs. Bringing family members to the United States, people waiting years, decades to be able to bring their family members here.”
Despite the challenges and obstacles Latinos face across the state, the population has continued to grow.
Gill said this growth has led to more representation across organizations for the Latino community.
“One of the most exciting things I've seen is just a growth in organizations and businesses and just community leaders that have Latin American ancestry and that have a deep knowledge of immigrant experiences and a vision to chart a path for our state and our communities,” she said.
Part of why Gill has seen this increase in organizations and community leaders is due to changes in the Latino community. Six out of 10 of North Carolina’s Latinos were born in the U.S.
As more Latinos are settling in the area, Hernandez-Paris has been using his personal experience to help the community through his work as the executive director of the Latin American Coalition.
He spearheaded a mentorship program for Latino students called Ganas. Feeling a sense of belonging is key for Latino immigrants to succeed in Charlotte, he said.
“When you're a migrant, regardless of the age or the point in life in which you migrate, one of the first things in order for you to integrate is validation,” Hernandez-Paris said.
Even though there are many more Latinos now than when Hernandez-Paris first got to Charlotte he says the narrative around Latino migration has gotten worse.
“As strange as it sounds,” Hernandez-Paris said. “It was easier to belong in the ‘70s when I came than what it is right now because of so many issues, international issues, with migration and all of that.”
After growing consistently for the past few decades the Latino community is now an essential part of the state, contributing to its cultural and economic development.