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Driving While Hispanic

When did race become a factor in alcohol abuse?

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When Mount Holly teacher Scott Gardner was killed in a car crash involving an illegal immigrant police say was drunk, vigils mourned the teacher's untimely death. US Rep. Sue Myrick called for immigration reform at press conferences. Gardner's tragic death, the congresswoman said, was the result of a broken immigration system, and only a lockdown on our borders could remedy the situation.

Fast-forward a few months to Dec. 1, and the victim this time is Robinson Lora, a 22-year-old man of Dominican descent. The young father is killed by a native-born man investigators suspect had been drinking. No similar hue and cry ensues. Then on Dec. 11, Roberto Rodriguez Perez is killed when he's struck by a car at the intersection of Central Avenue and North Sharon Amity Road.

Spanish-language radio stations and newspapers are abuzz, but no legislators have come calling. The perception among some Latinos is that people don't care about these deaths because the victims are Hispanic, says Angeles Ortega-Moore, executive director of the Latin American Coalition. "People are questioning that: 'How come people are not obsessing over this?'" She has an answer ready: "Sometimes we utilize tragic deaths to put blame on something."

Rafael Prieto Zartha, editor of Charlotte Spanish-language newspaper Mi Gente ("My People"), says Hispanics are worried about anti-immigrant backlash as their numbers have grown in this area. "In the mid '90s, few people were here. The perception was that they were hardworking and they were contributing," Prieto says.

Mecklenburg County's Hispanic population soared from 6,693 people in 1990 to 66,043 in 2004, US Census figures indicate. Latino advocates say those numbers are gross underestimates of the people who have fled bad economies in search of the proliferation of jobs in Charlotte. Most of those people are laborers who have little education. Some new immigrants, Prieto says, "basically need education to be integrated into society."

Hispanic agencies have announced plans to do just that, and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers are joining them. Cheryl Jones of Metrolina MADD says anti-drunk-driving activists hope in January to start a program called Pasa Las Llaves (Pass the Keys), intended to educate Hispanic immigrants about the dangers of driving drunk. The program is already in effect elsewhere, including Texas and Southern California.

"I don't think that there's a person out there that does not know you should not drink and drive," Jones says. "The Hispanic community knows the same thing, but the problem we're finding there is that [recent immigrants] don't really know or understand the laws in this country."

Jones says the program involves handing out brochures and keyrings bearing anti-drunk-driving slogans. Spanish-language newspapers and radio stations will continue to use space and airtime to get the message out. It may not change people overnight, but Jess George, associate director of the Latin American Coalition, points out how long it took to reduce drunken-driving rates to current levels among the general population. According to MADD, alcohol was involved in only 39 percent of traffic deaths in 2004, down from 55 percent in 1980, the year MADD was founded.

"It has taken decades and decades of education on every level," George says. "People who don't speak English and are new to this country, they haven't benefitted from that education."

Data indicates drunk driving disproportionately affects the Hispanic community. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers between 1990 and 1994, which linked agency records with death certificate information, showed alcohol is involved in about 50 percent of vehicle deaths involving Mexican Americans. Variation was found among different Latino groups, with alcohol being involved in only 24 percent of deaths involving Cuban Americans. By comparison, alcohol was involved in 38 percent of vehicle deaths among whites and 39 percent of such deaths among blacks.

Locally, Hispanics get 25 percent of the DWI citations, even though Hispanics make up only eight percent of the population. "Yes, we are overrepresented," Ortega-Moore says. "But when it comes to numbers, most of DWIs are white males."

Prieto points out that the number of alcohol citations may not represent the truest picture. "I'm not saying the police are targeting Hispanics as drunk drivers, but you don't see checkpoints in Myers Park, in Ballantyne Commons," he says.

Other factors may help explain the statistics. George notes that traffic laws differ in Mexico and other Latin American countries, and enforcement isn't necessarily uniform. What's more, some immigrants didn't drive as much in their native counties as they must in the States. With fewer cars on the roads, drunk driving is less of an issue.

George worries that the talk of Hispanic drunk driving due to the deaths of Scott Gardner and Min Chang may cause some people to assume all Latinos are dangerous. Also worrisome is the stereotyping of all Latinos as illegal immigrants. George points to the language in a recent failed anti-illegal immigration proposal by three Republicans on the Mecklenburg County commission that reads, "citizens of Mecklenburg County are being killed by the reckless actions of illegal immigrants." That language was removed before commissioners voted it down, but the message stuck, George says.

David Stewart, interim executive director of the International House, says he didn't notice a backlash directed toward Hispanic immigrants when he first moved to Charlotte soon after 9/11. Sentiment against Middle Easterners was then at its crescendo, similar to the way attitudes against Hispanics now seem to be on the upswing. "The rhetoric has really heated up in the past six to eight months," Stewart says.

Stewart believes elected officials, including Myrick and Mayor Pat McCrory, have played into anti-immigrant sentiment. McCrory formed the Immigration Study Commission to study immigration's role in public safety, job opportunities, education and health care; it's slated to make recommendations next year. "He hasn't been as inflammatory or perpetuating stereotypes as much as Sue Myrick, but the point is, the leadership in town seems to have latched onto this as an issue that they think is resonating," Stewart says. "That sets the tone."

McCrory's assistant, Dennis Marstall, says the mayor wants to explore immigration issues rationally, without fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment. "We've had enough emotion in this issue," Marstall says. "What has not been heard from in this discussion are facts."

Myrick did not return calls by press time.

Ron Woodard, director of NC Listen, an immigration reform advocacy group in Raleigh, says any negative tone with regard to immigrants is against people who are here illegally -- not Hispanics in general. "The Hispanic community should have nothing to worry about," he says. "No one is doing anything that's anti-immigrant. People are anti-illegal immigrant."

Jones, of Metrolina MADD, doesn't think public outcry about recent alcohol-related deaths has helped awareness of the drunk driving issue. Much of the rhetoric "has taken the focus off of the crime itself, and the victims, and placed it on the illegal immigration issue," says Jones, who's been involved with MADD for nearly 15 years. "So, as far as it helping anything with drunk driving, I think that's sort of gotten lost in what we're hearing."

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