Law students and immigrant advocates came together Wednesday to confront growing tension over North Carolina's growing Hispanic population.
"Suddenly, if you're brown, you're dehumanized," said Irene Godinez, advocacy director for the statewide Hispanic group El Pueblo. "North Carolina was one of the states that led in the civil rights movement. ... It's really shocking and saddening to me to see that now, we're not taking to the streets."
The discussion, organized by Hispanic law students at UNC-Chapel Hill, was sparked by a recent article in The News & Observer in which Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell expressed concerns about a Hispanic influx to his county.
Bizzell broadly referred to "Mexicans," a term he uses as a catch-all for Hispanics, as "trashy" and said they were "breeding like rabbits." He said Hispanics were committing crimes, sapping social services and threatening traditional culture.
Forum organizer Vanesa Hernandez, a second-year law student and co-president of the Hispanic/Latino Law Students Association, said she read Bizzell's remarks "in utter amazement."
She said she and other students decided "we need to have a public forum for the community to get together and be able to respond to this and organize and see how we can get to the root of what these statements are all about."
About 50 people, many of them law students, attended the discussion.
Bizzell was invited but did not attend. He issued a written apology on the day the story ran, but has not spoken publicly since.
UNC law professor Deborah Weissman said Bizzell's comments reflect increasing hostility and nativism that have taken root throughout the state. "Much of the immigration controversy is driven by fear and prejudice," she said.
Mark Dorosin, a lawyer with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, said the characterization of Hispanic immigrants as prone to crime is reminiscent of the way that blacks were marginalized in the era of segregation.
"That image of the Latino community as being dangerous criminals really foments a backlash," Dorosin said. "That fear is even more powerful when it's fomented by law enforcement."