A Wednesday visit to Hall County by several German tourists served to illuminate a reality prominent in the U.S., and increasingly in the forefront of modern Europe — the tide of immigration.
The group from the German-American Institute in Tuebingen, Germany, a medieval university town in southern Germany, was led by Penny Pinson, a former Northeast Georgia resident.
The institute’s mission is to promote German-American cultural awareness, and the 19 German visitors learned about how Gainesville-Hall County has tackled issues of diversity: from preservation of culture, to English integration, to the consequences of living illegally in the U.S. within a patchwork of laws and boundaries.
“This is very interesting for us, and it’s relatively new,” said Ute Bechdolf, director of the German-American Institute. “It’s good to have a difference in perspective, because the U.S. always has been an immigrant nation.”
Economic disparity between the U.S. and Mexico has long contributed to high migration from Mexico.
For Germany, its proximity to Turkey, harsh economic turmoil in southern Europe, combined with its large, stable economy have led to an enormous influx of immigration, Bechdolf said.
The program, held at the central office of the Hall County School Board, itself was a fusion of cultures — Assistant Superintendent at Hall County Schools Eloise Barron took her best stab at German, and Mexican food was provided by attorney and speaker Arturo Corso, who himself is a first-generation U.S. citizen, born on a military base in Heidelberg, Germany.
Enrique Montiel, who is co-chairman of the diversity committee for Vision 2030, a multipurpose growth and development project headed by the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, first talked about the projected demographics of Hall County.
“To do any project, the first thing you need to know is the people,” he said. “That’s why diversity has been an important part of every aspect of Vision 2030.”
Census data have shown that the majority of population growth in the city and county has been within the Latino community, Montiel pointed out.
And if research trajectories hold true, Montiel explained, the Latino population in Gainesville will double in about 15 years and the non-Hispanic white population will double in almost 110 years.
School system representatives explained how the system has undertaken the huge growth of students who speak English as a second language.
“We don’t try to change their culture: we try to teach them English,” Barron said. “It’s been a real learning curve, but we see it as an opportunity, not as a problem.”
The travelers were a mixture of retired and active professionals — several teachers, businessmen and women, a writer-photographer, a retired engineer, a farmer’s wife and two home economists and human rights volunteers, Pinson said.
For a politics-heavy topic that often stirs the emotions, the Germans’ vigor for the experience and educational opportunity kept the atmosphere light and fun.
“You talked about new leadership being more progressive?” one German attendee asked Corso, who talked about the slow progress of legislative action on immigration reform. “So what caused this change?”
“Education!” Barron chimed in, to laughter.
Education, in the end, is what the day was all about.
“There are cities in Germany that are up to 80 percent Turkish. We can learn from your strategies,” Bechdolf said.