ELLENTON -- A Tuesday forum spurred by the U.S. Department of Justice produced at least one consensus -- that it's tragic that it took a murder spree to bring about an organized effort to address the vulnerability of the local Hispanic population.
Community Relations Service (CRS), a peacemaking component of the U.S. Department of Justice, dispatched a team of mediators to Tift and Colquitt counties to listen and learn what they could about the racial climate here and the official steps that have been taken and those that should be taken to alleviate problems. The department was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an attempt to address community conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color and national origin, Justice Department information said.
With very little advance notice, about 70 people crammed into a meeting room at Ellenton Clinic, a community hub for many area Hispanics, to air their concerns. Hearing their thoughts was a panel of local officials from government, law enforcement and education.
Ellenton Clinic Director Cynthia Hernandez said that the Justice Department's meeting was "an excellent start." Out of it came the organization of a residents' group that would act on the interests of the Hispanic community in the county and meet regularly with local officials to hammer out problems.
"We've been waiting for something like this," said certified nursing assistant Marisela Resendiz. "It took something like this for it to happen."
This meeting reminded Resendiz of the change the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. brought about in civil rights and was glad to see Hispanics, some illegal, brave enough to speak out as well.
This thought was illustrated by the rallying applause behind the first Hispanic to stand and voice her opinion, Tina Sanchez.
Sanchez, employed at a local insurance office, saw the meeting as a real chance at making something good out of a bad situation. CRS mediators assured the group that the involvement by the federal department wasn't just lip service. They intend to return and continue to offer their expertise, Regional Director Thomas Battles said.
The officials were short on solutions to the complex, menacing challenges many local Hispanics face, but their willingness to find solutions was evident in their response to the crowd.
"The only thing I ask is that these deaths not be in vain," said another woman through an interpreter, Senior Conciliation Specialist Richard Sambrano, during the mediated discussion.
A high school student stood and told officials that she appreciated their willingness to help, but still some of officials' subordinates treat them differently or "look at us like we're ugly." Some talked of blatant discrimination and racial profiling. Some talked of criminal reports falling flat with no follow-up. Some talked of the rise in gang activity. Some talked of shoddy housing and landlords bilking them out of their money on rent-to-own property. All were in agreement that the number one problem is lack of communication.
Some suggestions were to have more bilingual programs in schools for all students, establish a neighborhood watch and push for documentation and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
Colquitt County Sheriff Al Whittington said that he and Tift County Sheriff Gary Vowell plan to push for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants who have settled in an area for an extended time. Farmers Kenny Bennett and Bert Kight support the move.
"The American public doesn't realize how much we depend on Hispanic labor," he said.