"It was a piece of junk," Rincon says, standing outside a shop displaying colorful quinceañera dresses. "We're trying to convert the mall into something that not just for merchandise, but for events and for enjoyment. We want to bring to the community something completely different. It's something the families don't have."
The sound of Latin music and aromas from the Congas Express food stand immediately greet visitors to the colorful and bustling mall. Mismatched tile patterns change sporadically from the old design to new ones in rugged red, yellow, and black shades. Old West facades hover over travel agencies, stores filled with piñatas, and family health centers. It looks like many of the shops found along Buford Highway, an international neighborhood north of Atlanta.
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As we walk to the food court, Brenda López Romero, a family immigration lawyer based in Norcross, says many of her clients frequent the mall. Some of them are looking for help with immigration court proceedings, others are petitioning to bring family members to the United States, among other issues. Gwinnett County is part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 287(g) program, an agreement between local and federal officials to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Of the Gwinnett County detainees in ICE's Stewart Detention Center, an immigration prison 140 miles south of Atlanta, 70 percent were stopped for minor traffic violations, Romero says.
"That's been a source of many problems here—a lot of racial profiling based on that," she says. "There's a distrust that you're not fully welcomed and your family runs the risk of being detained."
Latinos need voting power to change the rules in place in Gwinnett County, says Antonio Molina, who is sitting next to Romero. Pedro Marin's chief of staff in the Georgia Legislature, Molina says the numbers are promising. In 2003, there were just 800 registered Latino voters in Gwinnett County. Today, there are nearly 30,000.
"Even though the majority here are people in minority groups, that has not translated into actual voting power, and that is the problem," says Molina, who also serves as the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia Latino Caucus. "I tell folks all the time that we can have all the numbers that we want, but if we don't translate that into votes, then we're going to keep having these situations."
The children of those original Latino immigrants who moved to the area in 1990s are getting to voting age and will be a sought-after electorate. Combine the rising Latino population with African-Americans reversing the Great Migration and moving back to the South in droves, and Georgia has become a state to watch in national politics.
Having endured death threats and vandalism, Marin knows as well as anyone that the region's environment is still not ideal for Latinos. And while Latino leaders are making strides, he admits they need to work on teaching minorities how to run for public office. Otherwise, they'll be stuck with "the good old boys club," he says.
But while boosting voter turnout and advocating for immigrant rights may be at the top of Marin's list of priorities, there is one lingering goal for the man once accused of essentially being a Mexican spy. "I'm looking forward to going to Mexico one of these days."