Over the past decade or so, Hispanic immigrants, most of them from Mexico, have been streaming to Dalton for jobs in the city's carpet mills. This fall, for the first time, Hispanics are a majority - 51.4 percent - in the schools. Dalton, a city of 23,000 people in the northwestern part of the state, is the first community in Georgia to reach that benchmark. More Hispanics are coming every year, and city leaders are racing to keep up with the changes.
``It has been the greatest change of my lifetime,'' said Erwin Mitchell, a former congressman and lawyer who has lived here for seven decades. ``All public signs now are dual-language. The ads for jobs give preference for those who are bilingual.''
Across northern Georgia, in fact, a construction boom along with abundant jobs at poultry processing plants and carpet mills have caused Hispanic immigration to surge. But in Dalton, at least, there's another side to the transformation: As Hispanic students began enrolling in larger numbers, white families began pulling their children out.
There were 3,131 non-Hispanic white students in Dalton schools in the fall of 1989, or more than 80 percent of the total. This fall, there are only 1,893. Many say the white students are switching to private schools, some as far away as Chattanooga, Tenn., about 20 miles to the north.
Some parents complain their English-speaking children are being ignored as teachers pay more attention to children learning the language. Other people simply do not like the way their hometown has changed. A convenience store in town, Black Hills Lottery and Games, has posted an 8-foot plywood sign decrying ``uncontrolled immigration'' and declaring: ``Congress sold us for cheap labor.''
The immigrants have the clear support of Dalton's carpet industry, which produces more than 40 percent of the world's carpet. In a town where unemployment is less than 3 percent, carpet mills are desperate for reliable employees.
City leaders have taken extraordinary steps to welcome the newcomers. One carpet giant, Beaulieu of America, donated $1 million to help build a new Roman Catholic church. The city and county government also helped pay for an artificial-turf soccer complex used mostly by Hispanics.