May/June 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 5

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Looking forward to the 2010 Annual Meeting in Atlanta

The Past and Present
of Immigration in Atlanta

Robert M. Adelman, University at Buffalo-SUNY,
and Charles Jaret, Georgia State University

Although changes were taking place before 1996, the Olympic Games in Atlanta were a turning point. Previously, a regional powerhouse, the Atlanta metropolis grew out of its regional shell into a national, if not global, metropolis. The Olympics represent a watershed moment stimulating immigration to metropolitan Atlanta, which expanded international businesses and contributed to a booming construction industry; employers increasingly relied on immigrant labor. Consequently, immigration became a key component to the Atlanta area’s expansion. The city itself tripled its foreign-born population between 1980 and 2000 up to 6.5 percent of the total population (Jaret, Hayes, and Adelman 2009), and the percentage was higher in suburban areas.

Using the most recent American Community Survey (ACS) data (2008), the percentage of foreign-born residents in metropolitan Atlanta now stands at almost 15 percent, compared to 11 percent in 2000. Atlanta remains a predominantly white and black area with whites making up 52 percent and blacks 32 percent of the population. But at 15 percent of the metropolitan population, the foreign-born population brings substantial change to a southern area once dominated by a white-black paradigm. Politics, culture, and education are being affected by these population dynamics.

Based on the 2008 ACS, Latinos are almost 40 percent of metropolitan Atlanta’s foreign-born population, while Asians comprise 22 percent. The largest contingent among foreign-born Latinos is from Mexico (63 percent of foreign-born Latinos in Atlanta are from Mexico). Among Asians, two of the larger groups are from India at 34 percent and from China at 12 percent in 2008. Immigration continues to transform the area, but these statistics are only part of the story that started later in the 20th century than in other cities.

Early Immigration

From a historical perspective, Atlanta, like many southern cities, did not lure huge numbers of foreign-born residents during the 1880–1920 wave of mass immigration. In 1900, immigrants comprised less than 4 percent of Atlanta’s population, a figure far exceeded by many northern industrial cities or West Coast cities. The relatively recent arrival of a large foreign-born population in metropolitan Atlanta has led immigration researchers to include Atlanta among the "emerging gateway cities" of the United States (Singer 2004) for Latinos, Asians, Caribbeans, and Africans.

A look back to the early 20th century finds that the two most significant small immigrant groups in Atlanta were Jews and Greeks. The Jews, mainly from Russia and Poland, became established in family-run retail and wholesale businesses. They resided and had stores in or near downtown black neighborhoods, and their straddling of the Jim Crow color-line made the Jewish immigrants suspect in the eyes of many white Atlantans and viewed with mixed feelings by many blacks. Similarly, Greek newcomers did not initially fit easily into the black-white racial dichotomy. In 1922, desire to be more accepted in white mainstream society motivated Atlanta Greek immigrants to create the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). It espoused "Americanization" and assimilation, quickly added chapters in other, cities and became the largest secular Greek organization in the United States.

A tiny Chinese immigrant community existed in early 20th-century Atlanta, operating laundries, groceries, and restaurants. It wasn’t until after the 1965 revision of U.S. immigration policy that Chinese immigrants began settling in Atlanta in significant numbers and started building community institutions. In the 1970s, the growing population of Chinese faculty and students at Georgia Tech became the "backbone" of the Atlanta Chinese community in the 1980s and 1990s (Zhao 2002). As awareness of Atlanta’s rapidly growing economy grew, Chinese-owned businesses began investing in Atlanta and a wave of Chinese managers, bankers, professionals, and supporting workers moved here. This created a need for a wide range of Chinese services and cultural institutions, including the Atlanta Chinese Community Center, which moved to its current location in Chinatown Mall in 1989. Most Chinese residents and businesses are found in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, in the corridor formed by I-85, Buford Highway, and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.


A shopping mall sign in a Latino section of Atlanta.

Latinos in Atlanta

Since 1970, the Latino immigrant population, especially Mexicans, has experienced the most rapid growth, mainly in Gwinnett, Cobb, and DeKalb counties. Studies from the 1970s and early 1980s show residential dispersal—no area of high concentration. Instead, Latinos lived in the city of Atlanta near Broadview Plaza (now Lindbergh Plaza) and Grant Park and outside the city in Doraville, Chamblee, East Point, Smyrna, and Norcross. Several key Latino community institutions were created in that era: The Latin American Association (1972), which is a key provider of social, cultural, and legal services; the newspaper Mundo Hispanico (1979); and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (1986). The people most active in founding these were from Central America, Colombia, Cuba, and Puerto Rico and of middle-class background; the more working-class Mexicans were less active and had less stature in the community.

Since 2000, three changes have affected Latinos in Atlanta. First, as more whites move to the city of Atlanta, Latinos have a lower profile and a negligible influence in the city’s politics and social scene. In fact, in the 2009 mayoral election (between a black male and a white female) no efforts were made to court Latino (or other immigrant) voters and no issues of specific interest to Latinos were raised or addressed by the candidates. Second, Latino residential concentration has become an increased presence in suburban counties, particularly in Cobb, DeKalb, and Gwinnett (Odem 2008), mainly because that is where jobs that attract large numbers of Latino immigrants are located (e.g., construction, landscaping, warehousing, food processing). Today, many neighborhoods are heavily Latino and Latino students are a majority in several public schools.

A Lack of Acceptance

The third change is a decline in acceptance of and respect for Latinos by the general public. Latinos in general have become stigmatized by heightened resentment against people who enter and remain in the United States illegally. At the urging of legislators from Cherokee and Cobb counties, Georgia’s General Assembly passed the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act in 2006. This act prohibits illegal immigrants over the age of 18 from receiving public benefits, requires state agencies and private businesses with government contracts to use a federal verification system to ensure all new hires are legally allowed to work, and mandates jail officials to check the status of all foreign-born people arrested for a felony or DUI and report anyone to the Department of Homeland Security who is not lawfully admitted. In addition, Cobb and Gwinnett counties chose to participate in the 287(g) program, which requires a local police department—in coordination with Immigration and Customs Enforcement—to determine the legal status of jail inmates, remove those in the country illegally, and begin processing them for possible deportation. Both counties now say this program has sharply reduced the number of undocumented persons held in their jails.

Cherokee County has declared English the official language of the county and it passed an ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to anyone not in the United States legally. Beyond that, several towns in metropolitan Atlanta have passed ordinances requiring English words on immigrants’ business signs, prohibited day laborers (mainly Latinos) from standing together waiting for pick-up work, and revised housing codes to prevent large numbers of people from living in a house or apartment. In 2006, on Buford Highway, Latino migrants and their supporters held a sizeable protest march against these measures, but it had little lasting effect. Although not all of these measures are currently being enforced, those that are, coupled with the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric these laws have generated plus the economic recession, have caused a substantial decline in the number of people going to the stores, clubs, and gathering places that previously drew large numbers of Latino immigrants.

Whether or not immigrants will continue to move to Atlanta at the pace of the last 20 years is an important question. Like most metropolitan areas, those of the Sunbelt are not weathering the current economic recession particularly well. Will Atlanta remain an immigrant destination if jobs continue to disappear? Have immigrant communities developed strong enough ethnic niches to continue pulling immigrants to the area? Will the hostility described above push immigrants out or reduce the opportunities of those who arrive? These are key questions for a place that has experienced rapid social and economic change over a generation.

For more on this topic, plan to attend two sessions, Immigration in Atlanta and International Initiatives and Community Partnerships: Blending Research and Service, being sponsored by the Regional Spotlight Committee.


Jaret, Charles, Melissa M. Hayes, and Robert M. Adelman. 2009. "Atlanta’s Future: Convergence or Divergence with Other Cities?" Pp. 13-47 in Past Trends and Future Prospects of the American City: The Dynamics of Atlanta, edited by D.L. Sjoquist. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Odem, Mary. 2008. "Unsettled in the Suburbs: Latino Immigration and Ethnic Diversity in Metro Atlanta." Pp. 105-136 in Twenty-First-Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America, edited by A. Singer, S.W. Hardwick, and C.B. Brettell. Washington DC: Brookings Institution.

Singer, Audrey. 2004. The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways. Washington DC: Brookings Institution.

Zhao, Jianli. 2002. Strangers in the City: The Atlanta Chinese, Their Community and Stories of Their Lives. New York: Routledge.

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