CALHOUN, Ga. -- A few blocks down the main road from this small downtown in the north Georgia hills, the Matul family from Guatemala has opened a grocery selling fresh exotic fruits, canned juice from Mexico, and international telephone calling cards.
Owner Brenda Matul, 29, counts on the influx of Hispanic immigrants to the community to seal the success of her 5-month-old ''Tienda la Guadalupana" and her life's journey from Central America to become a naturalized US citizen with US-born, bilingual children.
''One day we can grow more if immigrants keep coming to us for imports," Matul said about her clientele. ''But now they're worried and afraid, afraid of going back, of poverty."
Immigrants account for nearly one out of every six of Calhoun's 13,000 residents. Like virtually everyone else in town, at some point, most have worked for the world's largest carpet makers, headquartered in the area.
Now, one of those companies faces a lawsuit over the immigrant workers it hires, and the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case Wednesday. The litigation could change this community and set precedents for how the country deals with immigration.
One current and three former employees of
The case raises the three pivotal questions in the immigration debate: Are immigrants, legal or not, coming to work in the United States because the economy needs them or because companies exploit inexpensive labor to the detriment of US-born workers? Should the front-line controls on illegal immigration be the personnel offices of manufacturers? And will stricter checks on hiring documents for applicants who look or sound foreign discriminate?
The Supreme Court will focus only on whether a company and its agents -- recruiters, in this case -- can be considered a racketeering enterprise under civil provisions of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which allows the plaintiffs to ask for triple damages.
Both sides agree, however, that the case is about US citizens taking matters in their own hands because they feel that illegal immigration is out of control.
''This points out the need to have private enforcement. It gives private citizens some recourse to protect themselves," said Howard Foster, the employees' lawyer and a noted immigration-control activist who has taken on large corporations across the country. His clients, through him, declined interview requests.
The government plans to crack down harder on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday after a series of raids at a pallet manufacturer's plants. More than 1,100 people were arrested on immigration charges.