In some ways, the traveling taco stand has become a symbol of the rise of Hispanics in the US. Here in Gwinnett County, Ga., it wasn't any different – until lawmakers outlawed the $1 street-corner taco vendor last month.
Hispanic purveyors of the workingman's lunch represent an immigration policy many Americans feel has gone haywire. In many interior states where the Hispanic immigration had been minimal until recently, residents are encountering more new faces speaking an incomprehensible language and infiltrating street corners with their cilantro-spiced fare.
In resisting the sudden and growing influence of Latino culture, some cities and towns across America are requiring the use of English and restricting culinary mores and even the Hispanic tradition of sitting on the front porch.
"People are ... realizing how much [illegal immigration] is costing them, they watched the May 1 demonstrations, and they are mad," says Richard Lamm, a former Colorado governor, who codirects the Institute for Public Policy Studies in Denver. "They're reaching for whatever tool is available, and some of those tools are harsh and not very sophisticated."
More Hispanics – legal and illegal – live in Gwinnett County than anywhere else in Georgia. The Hispanic population in the county has swelled to more than 105,000, expanding from 10 to 15 percent of the total since 2000, according to the US Census. Displays of Hispanic culture – from used tire shops to carnicerías or butcher shops – dot the Buford Highway in Norcross, Ga., a bustling outpost of Atlanta.
The influx of immigrants in states outside the Big Six immigration states – California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, and Florida – has changed the landscape so dramatically, so quickly, that the voting constituency has hardly been able to keep up, experts say. In 2002, illegal immigrants living in the US used $2,700 worth of government services per person more than they paid in taxes, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates curtailing immigration levels.
Powerless to seal or control the US borders themselves, locals are taking their own action.
Last month, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners became one of the first in the country to ban mobile taco stands, which officials said were cluttering street corners. One Gwinnett politician described the proliferation of rolling taco stands as "gypsy-fication."
Nashville, Tenn., is now considering a similar law. "I don't think you'd see this generalized fear if they were selling grits," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Others have taken even more flagrant actions toward Hispanic immigrants. A Philadelphia sub shop owner, Joseph Vento, has a sign up that reads: "This is America. When Ordering, Speak English." In Ohio, Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones has put up a yellow sign saying "Illegal Aliens Here," with an arrow pointing to the county jail.
The mayor of Hazleton, Pa., Friday signed a law that punishes landlords for renting to illegals and mandates that all official city business be conducted in English. Since 2000, the percentage of Latinos in Hazleton has jumped from 5 percent to nearly 30 percent.
" ... [T]o illegal immigrants and those who would hire or abet them in any way ... You are no longer welcome," Mayor Lou Baretta wrote in a letter posted on the city's website.
While anti-immigrant hate groups increased 33 percent in the past five years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, overall acceptance of immigration is at a five-year high, according to a recent Gallup Poll.
"What we're seeing is little towns in Kansas trying to ban people from sitting on their front porch, because that's what [Hispanics] do," says Gabriela Lemus, of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Washington. "On the other hand, there is a real challenge in places like Little Rock, Ark., and Cicero, Ill., where [towns] aren't prepared for a community they didn't expect to have."
To Mexicans, "tacos are life," says Juan Martinez, a construction worker in Norcross. Mr. Martinez, a green-card holder from central Mexico, prefers to make his own tacos, but says that mobile taco stands serve many Hispanic workers stuck at construction sites. The lack of protest about the ban in Gwinnett County doesn't surprise him. "This is not our country, we don't have the power," Martinez says. "[Americans] are going to do what they're going to do."
Still, these restrictions come about because of inaccurate stereotypes that all Hispanics are undocumented or poor, says Dan Tichenor, an immigration expert at the Eagleton Institute of Politics in New Brunswick, N.J. "Getting nostalgic about our own immigrant past, but dreading the latest newcomers, is something that has been around since Ben Franklin," he says.
The local ordinances are a forerunner to developing a national policy for immigration reform, says Mr. Frey. "Part of the price we have to pay before we come up with reasonable national solutions is this kind of interim action where local officials try to grandstand for small political gains," he says.
But such ordinances are little more than "feel-good" efforts by frustrated Americans, says Robert Nilles, a Hazleton city councilor. "It's a little funny in a way, because you're trying to control something you have no control over," he says.