State of the Union weighs on small town residents | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 13.02.2013
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State of the Union weighs on small town residents

In his State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama laid out his agenda for his second term in office. The residents of Dalton, Georgia face the nation's challenges and opportunities on a daily basis.

"In mid-2009, our business was hit with the recession just like everybody else," Sam Burger said. "So we've limped along for a couple of years, but now we're starting to see business slowly go back up."

Burger is the vice president of Lexmark Carpet Inc., one of over 150 carpet factories in Dalton, Georgia. With a population of 33,000, this mid-sized city north of Atlanta claims to be the carpet capital of the world. Around half of the industrial-made carpets in the United States are produced here. Virtually everyone in Dalton lives from this industry.

Burger proudly shows off his factory, with its two production floors and meters-high ceilings.

American hotels are Lexmark's biggest customers. It's one of the few companies in the region that has been able to grow in recent months. The company recently expanded its production floor by 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet), Burger said, stretching out his hands.

The economic growth in Dalton is an exception in this area. Unemployment in the city lies around 11 percent, higher than the 7.9-percent national average. But even 7.9 percent is high when compared to American historical averages. That's a problem for President Barack Obama, whose administration has tried to jumpstart the economy with massive stimulus programs.

In his State of the Union address, Obama focused on domestic priorities, staking his new term on an ambitious bid to reignite America's economic engine. "Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger," Obama told the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening. "It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class."

Illegal workforce

Yet in Lexmark's factory, around 250 men and women work around the clock in 12-hour shifts. The conditions are tough: deafening noise, heat, and no natural light. The workers speak Spanish among each other - only a few have a good command of English. And a majority of them don't have a residency permit. They came to Dalton a decade ago, when the economy was still booming. At that time, business was good and the wages were higher than in neighboring regions in the American South.

More than 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States and work jobs that no American is willing to take at that price. The US economy is dependent on these migrants. But they are not insured, they have no claim to retirement, and they often do not have driver's licenses.

A reform of the immigration system is long overdue, but has failed up until now due to opposition from conservative Republicans. Yet Latinos are becoming a large and influential demographic and the Republican Party has begun to rethink its position since President Obama's reelection victory. Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, will deliver the Republican response to the president's State of the Union address - in English and in Spanish.

Worker in carpet factory

Lexmark has slowly begun recovering from the recession

Living between two worlds

Change is coming slowly, and the children at Dalton's middle school may be among the first to benefit. Around two-thirds of the middle school students here have Latin American ancestry. Andres is one of them. The 13-year-old is entering the eighth grade. Shortly before his birth, his parents fled the poverty of the Mexican provinces for a better life in the US. Born in the US, Andres is an American citizen.

Andres' father is residing in the US illegally. He works, like almost all Hispanics in Dalton, in one of the carpet factories. Andres makes no secret of his father's situation, speaking openly about it while he moves nervously in his chair.

"I kind of feel Mexican, because even though I was born here, all my family has come from Mexico. They just came over because of the opportunities that are here in America, compared to Mexico where they don't really have much."

Although Andres does not really feel like he belongs to American society, he knows that a better future is possible for him in the US. His dream is to become a meteorologist. He would like to go to San Francisco - he's heard that you can earn good money there.

Gridlock in Washington

David Pennington is familiar with the problems facing the city's children. In the last year, he began his second term as Dalton's mayor. Pennington knows virtually everyone here. As he walks through the city center, he is greeted by passers-by.

Pennington has little patience for the political maneuvering in the national capital. "We've got two Disney Worlds - one in Orlando and one in Washington, DC," he said. For him, it doesn't matter which party is in power.

David Pennington, mayor of Dalton

Mayor David Pennington is tired of both Democrat and Republican policies

"We're frustrated, because no matter who you send up there - Republican or Democrat - they both believe in big government," he said. "Democrats believe in taxing you for big government, and Republicans believe in borrowing all the money for big government."

The president has also complained about the deadlock in Washington. In his first term, he wasn't able to successfully bring Democrats and Republicans together at one table.

But a recent tragedy could bridge the partisan divide: In December, 27 people, including 20 small children, were shot dead at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. At the middle school in Dalton, teachers have begun locking classroom doors during school hours. The kids have also drilled what they should do if a gunman enters the building. Since the massacre in Newtown, everyone here has become more careful. Additional police now patrol the corridors.

Push for stricter gun control

In response to the Newtown massacre, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has suggested posting armed guards in all of America's schools. Brian Suits, the principal of Dalton's middle school, is strictly opposed to the NRA's proposal. He believes that it would undermine the role of teachers.

Twelve-year-old Nicolas Lama firing a handgun

Nicolas Lama has been raised in America's firearms tradition

"Teachers, by nature I think, love and want to nurture kids, and if you have a problem child and to suddenly have to make a decision when you have a weapon in your hand, I think it would be very tough for that teacher," Suits said.

But just a few kilometers north of Dalton, on the state border with Tennessee, the debate about gun rights and regulation is viewed differently. The Camp Shooters Inc. shooting range is nestled in a small forest between cow fields and wooden homes.

Gun enthusiasts meet regularly here. The 12-year-old Nicolas Lama aims with his pistol and hits the target right in the middle, some 10 meters away. Lama has been shooting since he was four and killed his first deer when he was five. His grandfather, Eddie Painter, pats him on the shoulder: "Well done, son."

Painter has handled guns his entire life: first as a soldier in the Korean War, and then later in the sheriff's office. When discussing gun laws, he references the US constitution.

"There is some price for every right that we have - freedom of speech, freedom of religion," he said. "There is always some price to pay. I think it's wrong, the way they're going about it, trying to infringe on the whole population because there are a few bad apples, which always exist in every society."

After the massacre in Newtown, President Obama declared that it was time to reform America's gun laws. But the country is deeply divided when it comes to guns. Traditionalists and conservative Republicans remain critical of tighter gun control.

The weak economy, immigration and gun laws are only a few of the problems that the president must try to solve. The people of Dalton are skeptical that their personal situation can be improved by decisions made in Washington.

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