Thursday, April 28, 2011

Final Article

A college graduation party is winding down late one Friday evening. Yovani Reyes and
his fiancee thank the hosts and head toward their pickup truck in preparation for the 20-minute
ride home.
Reyes, an Atlanta restaurant worker, is stone sober while his recently graduated soon-to-
be wife, a native of Oklahoma, is anything but. As his intoxicated lover puts the key in the
ignition, Reyes buckles his seatbelt on the passenger side without saying a word.
Reyes, like millions of others living and working in the United States, is an illegal
immigrant. Due to his undocumented status, Reyes is prohibited from obtaining a government
issued driver’s license.
Reyes says, "As a couple we have decided that whenever we drive somewhere together,
Heather will drive, especially if it is late at night. It is too risky for me to get pulled over. Our
whole future together could be at stake every time I get behind the wheel because I don’t have a
license and I am here without documentation."

Reyes feels more comfortable driving during the day and regularly drives to work. He is
employed by two restaurants in downtown Atlanta and often finds himself working 80-hour
Jeremy Sparks also works in city of Atlanta. Make that for the city of Atlanta.
Sparks, as a police officer, finds himself dealing with the issue of illegal immigrants and
driving on a daily basis.
Sparks says, "The biggest misunderstanding people seem to have is that I have some
degree of control in what will ultimately happen to an illegal immigrant if I happen to engage one
during a traffic stop. I am only there to enforce the law."

Sparks has the look of law enforcer: a freshly shaved head, glistening Oakley sunglasses,
and a goatee maintained with such precision that not a hair dares to deviate from place.

Sparks continues, " Sometimes people beg or argue, but if I pull you over and you don’t
have a driver’s license, I have a responsibility to arrest you. If you have a license, but don’t have
it on you then there is a good chance you can get away with just being ticketed. If you simply
don’t have a license, however, you are likely headed to jail. That’s my job. The law doesn’t have
a lot of grey area on these things."
Sparks concludes, "It’s not a matter of race, or politics, or any of that, at least not for me.
It’s simply following the letter of the law."
According to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, the number of illegal
immigrants in Georgia has risen to 425,000, placing it as the seventh-largest state in terms of
numbers of undocumented residents.

Among the new arrivals is Ivan Hernandez.
Originally from Juarez, Mexico, Hernandez spent his first three months in the United
States in Houston. Unable to find work, Hernandez followed the path of one of his cousins and
relocated to the metro Atlanta area.
Hernandez has had a tough life. Raised by his grandmother in Mexico until her death
when he was just 13, Hernandez admits that after her passing, he was forced to panhandle on
street corners just to survive.
Hernandez says, "I came here, two years ago, for the same reasons we all come here. For
a better opportunity. I want to find a wife and start a family and the life I was leading in Mexico
was not a life to bring children into."
The risks that plague illegal immigrants if they choose to drive without a license were not initially clear to Hernandez.
"When I talked to people in Mexico right before I left for Houston, I thought one of the
main things I could do when I got to America was drive a taxi. I had no idea it would be so tough
to get a driver’s license," Hernandez adds.
For many advocates of immigrants’ rights, the presidential election of 2008 appeared to
offer real hope that things could be changing for the better.
According to a 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article, then-Sen. Barack Obama outlined a
proposal to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants nationwide. Obama subsequently
promised to tackle the divisive issue within his first year in office were he to be elected.
Unfortunately for undocumented workers, Obama’s position became progressively more
untenable as support for illegal immigrants’ rights waned when illegal aliens became convenient
scapegoats during a prolonged economic downturn that would cripple the American economy.
In addition to national sentiment turning against illegal immigrants, several developments
on the state level have further disenfranchised undocumented residents.
In 2010, the state of Arizona passed legislation that drew national attention and the ire of
immigration rights’ activists.
The constitutionality of the law is still being adjudicated, but the intent of the law’s
authors was clear. Chiefly among the law’s aims was to mandate that local law enforcement
personnel actively attempt to ascertain the legal status of any individual they came into contact
In the wake of the Arizona crisis, dozens of other states have proposed similar measures.
In 2001, 11 states had passed legislation that allowed for non-citizens to acquire drivers
licenses. Today that number is reduced to three.
The three states that still do allow for illegal immigrants (Utah, Washington, and New
Mexico) to acquire licenses have passed or are in the process of passing legislation that would
outlaw the practice.
Reyes recalls a time when things used to be different: "I remember when I was 8 or 9 and
we took a family vacation to North Carolina so my father could get a driver’s license. Dad still
has the license. It’s expired but he still carries it in his wallet just in case."
Another setback for proponents of licenses for undocumented aliens occurred in the form
of the 2005 REAL ID Act.
The REAL ID Act was a piece of federal legislation, proposed by the Office of Homeland
Security in conjunction with the September 11 Commission and passed by Congress, that
attempted to establish national standards for state-issued driver’s licenses.
The Act gave a deadline of 2008 before the states had to come into compliance with the
requirements laid out in the bill. Subsequently, all 50 states were given waivers to postpone
The law’s supporters pointed out that 13 driver’s licenses were issued to 9/11 hijackers.

This use of terrorism, or fear of terrorism, as a rationale to deny licenses to individuals
who came to America solely in the hopes of bettering the lives of their families is offensive to
many who live with the consequences.
Wilkerson says of her future husband, "I would argue that Yovani and the millions of
undocumented Mexicans living here are more likely to be law-abiding than even the average
American. Of course, you are always going to have some bad apples, but the overwhelming
majority of Latino immigrants are decent folks who came to America because they love
Reyes agrees, "This country is my home. I only have three memories of my early years
in Mexico. America is what I know. I go out of my way to obey the laws and customs of
America because I cherish the opportunity I have living here."
The debate on illegal immigrants and driver’s licenses shows no shows of dissipating.
The ideological fringe on either side of the argument continue to be allowed to frame the
A pragmatic compromise seems years away from becoming reality.
And so Reyes and Hernandez wait.
But so do Wilkerson and Sparks.
The illegal immigration problem affects the entire nation. Native and Immigrant. Citizen
and Undocumented alike.
There is one other American cultural tradition Reyes and Wilkerson would like to be a
part of.
"In the movies, you always see the bride and groom dashing off in the car with ‘Just
Married’ spray painted on the back with the cans trailing behind. I would like to drive my new
wife into the sunset," says Reyes. "But if the American politicians say no, It’s OK. I will get to
chauffeur her around on our honeymoon. We’re going to Cancun."

The Georgia Legislature sent a clear sign to the illegal immigration population of Georgia
with its passage of an Arizona-style immigration bill.
It says quite simply: Get out.
Just like the constitutionally dubious Arizona attempt, this piece of legislation gives law
enforcement officers the authority to question anyone they come in contact with about their legal
The bill has not been signed yet, but Republican Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign it
into when it comes across his desk.
The bill requires private employers to check potential employees against E-Verify, a
federal database, to ensure that all workers are here legally.
Yovani Reyes is a 23-year-old illegal immigrant who came to America shortly after he
turned 5.
Reyes says, "These politicians are voting with their hearts instead of their minds. They
don’t realize how strong the Latino community is today and they don’t pay attention to the
numbers. In 30 years we (Latinos) are going to be the majority."
Reyes continues, "These Republicans are going to regret betraying such a big group of
voters. I understand the economic situation isn’t great now and they are looking for somebody to
blame, but they are doing more harm than good."
His fiancee, Heather Wilkerson concurs, "The problem with the bill is the message it
sends. The biggest employer statewide is the agriculture sector and they use illegal labor as much
as anybody does. You are going to have an exodus of workers and it is going to drive up the price
of labor."
For Atlanta Police Officer Jeremy Sparks, the more things change the more they stay the
same. "If it(the bill) becomes law I’ll enforce it."
Ivan Hernandez is a recently arrived illegal immigrant.
Hernandez, unlike Reyes, has relatively few family and friends in Atlanta, so for him it
could mean a change of address. Hernandez says, "If Georgia has this kind of law and other
states don’t, I should live there instead of here."
What has so many of the bill’s opponents so infuriated is the potential economic loss the
state might face if this legislation is ever enacted.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected
Officials, wrote in Creative Loafing "Georgia is the home of many multinational corporations,
has the world’s busiest airport, has a thirst for expanding international trade, and is the cradle of
the civil rights movement. Georgia’s economic development efforts rely upon it being seen as a
good place to do business."
In addition to local objections, the bill has drawn criticism from the White House.
President Obama says, "It is a mistake to try to do this piecemeal," in an interview with WSB-
TV. Obama adds, "We can’t have 50 different immigration laws around the country."
The bill, Georgia House Bill (HB) 87, was passed on April 14 and is expected to be
signed by Deal in early May. An extensive legal battle about the bill’s constitutionality is widely

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Profile Article

   Nick Alicea scrambles to find his cell phone as he hurriedly leaves the veterinarian’s
office. Peanut, his beloved 7-year-old dachshund/terrier mix is, thankfully, cancer free. That
mass on her belly merely a benign cyst. One thing down, a dozen to go, Alicea thinks to himself.
   Now where is that cell phone?
   Alicea searches aimlessly as he mentally runs down the laundry list of errands
demanding completion today, Nov. 22, 2010, three days before Thanksgiving. Pick dad up at the
airport. Buy flowers to celebrate the three-month anniversary of his engagement to the woman of
his dreams, Sarah. Call and wish his baby brother a happy 29th birthday. Buy groceries for the
holiday feast. Locate his cell phone.
   "There it is. Right where I left it," Alicea berates himself as he discovers his Blackberry
under a brochure for a wedding caterer on the leather passenger seat of his jet black Mustang as
he accelerates onto the highway en route to Hartsfield-Jackson. An automated voice informs
   Alicea he has one new voicemail.
   His one voicemail is from a lawyer in Virginia urgently requesting a return call.
   Alicea remains unaware of the significance of this voicemail and what it will ultimately
lead to: A life-altering opportunity to reunite with a son he never knew he had.
   Waiting for his father’s arrival at baggage claim, Alicea impatiently sips an overpriced,
over-heated espresso and Googles the area code from the lawyer’s number, again on his
Blackberry. 7-5-7, a Virginia Beach number, a noteworthy peculiarity because Alicea has never
visited Virginia’s most populous city.
   Several hours and errands later, Alicea finally gets around to returning the lawyer’s call.
   "It was the most surreal thing" Alicea confesses, seemingly still as puzzled recounting
the events as he was initially experiencing them.

   "The lawyer says he is calling on behalf of Corey Woods. Now, right off the bat I
recognize the name, Woods, Kendra, she’s a girl I dated when I was 19," Alicea continues.
   "I’m so naive. I’m thinking Corey is Kendra’s dad or brother and that something bad has
happened to Kendra. Little did I know," Alicea says. "The next thing I know the lawyer is asking
me to take a paternity test to prove Corey is my son."
   "And within two weeks, it was a done deal, a DNA swab from my cheek left no doubt, I
was a dad," Alicea says as his puzzled countenance melts into a visage beaming with pride.
   The story of Alicea and Woods’ romance is not dissimilar to many relationships that
begin in high school. Passionate enough while it lasted, but abruptly concluded when Alicea
went off to culinary school. Woods quickly rebounded and was married by the time of Corey’s
   The Woods family grew to include two other children and Corey did not learn the true
identity of his biological father until the DNA results came back from Alicea’s cheek. Until
then, Corey had been led to believe that the man that he called his dad was exactly that.

   After a brief 10 minute phone conversation between Alicea and Corey, a face-to-face
meeting was agreed upon.
  But first, something else had to be settled.

   Alicea had to inform his fiancee that he was a father.

   "At first I was scared of her reaction, but she handled it beautifully. She instantly put me
right at ease," Alicea says.
   Sara Smith recalls the moment similarly: "For the tiniest fraction of a second I wanted to
be mad at him (Alicea), but I looked into his eyes and you could see that he was happy and I was
reminded of why I wanted to marry him in the first place."
   Smith elaborates, "When I had a moment to myself, a moment to think things through, it
dawned on me that this experience for Nick would make him be a better father to our children if
and when we decided to have kids because he would realize all the moments he missed in
Corey’s childhood and want to be there even more for our babies."
   That if and when were, in reality, a yes and now, but as Alicea packed for Virginia with
his fiancee’s blessing, neither of them knew it.
   Exactly a fortnight after that fateful voicemail, Nick Alicea was back at the airport. Not
to pick up a father, but this time as a father himself, hours away from seeing his 15-year-old son,
his firstborn, his flesh and blood for the very first time.
   Yet, as he boarded the DC-9, the 34-year-old Alicea felt like he was the one that was 15.
   "It was giddiness cloaked in apprehension enveloped in dreadful bliss," Alicea slyly
recollects. "I had no idea what to expect and even less of an idea of what to say."
   "As is the case with most fated circumstances, things have a way of working themselves
out," Alicea says as he exhales. "We have so much in common. The whole three day trip there
wasn’t one awkward silence."
   "It’s not like he didn’t have a dad growing up. Kendra’s husband raised Corey as his
own. He is a tremendously well-adjusted kid. It is a testament to them, really," Alicea says.
   When Alicea returned home to Atlanta, It was Smith’s turn to drop a bombshell:
   She was pregnant.
   Smith sat Alicea down on Christmas Eve to tell him the good news.
   Four months ago, Alicea was a bachelor.
   One month ago, he was childless.
   Now, Nick Alicea would awaken Christmas morning next to his pregnant fiancee and
with a 15-year-old son 600 miles away.
   He jokes with Smith that he should start introducing himself as Nicholas, since it sounds
more befitting a father twice over.

   According to those that know him, Alicea has adjusted nicely.
   Corey Custer, Alicea’s co-worker and friend for over a decade, says "All these changes
in Nick’s personal life have affected him greatly. The one overriding change I’ve noticed it that
he has acquired perspective. The little things don’t bother him like they used to. It’s a maturity
   Alicea, for his part, views these events more as life-affirming than life-altering. "Do I
wish I was there for Corey’s first steps or first Little League game? Of course. But God does
things for strange reasons and I don’t know a single soul who is more blessed than I am."
   A recent ultrasound revealed that Alicea’s newest blessing will be a baby girl.
   "During my bachelor days, I did a million things that made me happy," Alicea says, "But
now as I lay on the couch, with Peanut at my feet and my head resting on Sara’s burgeoning
baby bump, looking up at my son’s picture on the mantle, I realize for the first time in my life I
am content."
   Isabella Alicea, Corey Wood’s kid sister, is due to enter this beautiful world Aug. 1.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

     A somber teenage boy lies in an oversized hospital bed. An overcast afternoon at a local

skateboard park has gone horribly wrong. The child is saddened more by the doctor’s report that

he is out of commission for six months than he is by the physical pain of the fractured tibia and

torn patella tendon in his left leg. To Mike McNabb, six months without skating might as well be

a death sentence.

     Among the well-wishers that would crowd McNabb’s bedside that July evening would be

Mike’s older brother Stan. McNabb had received magazines and baseball cards as get-well gifts

already, but Stan arrived with this ordeal’s silver lining. Stan gave his kid brother a fingerboard.

A fingerboard is merely a skateboard in miniature. Whereas a skateboard is manipulated with

feet, a fingerboard is controlled entirely with the middle and index fingers of one hand. Stan too

had once been an aspiring skateboarder before moving on to the more traditional high school

athletic endeavors of baseball and football. Stan’s $4 gift, purchased at gas station and given

halfway in jest, would have a big impact on his little brother.

     Six years removed from that fatefully unsuccessful landing at the skateboard park, Mike

McNabb, now 19, could not tell you how many hours he has spent fingerboarding in the interim.

     "More than 2,500 and less than 10,000" he says without giving the question much

thought. "It (the fingerboard) is essentially an extension of my hand at this point. If I go to the

movies, I board on the armrest. In school, I board on the desks, railings, books, basically

anything that’s in front of me."
The wiry 6-foot-2 McNabb looks the part. Calf-length black denim shorts with a

seemingly endless array of pockets. A belt around his waist that was once a car seatbelt, barely

holding up his shorts. A nondescript grey T-shirt under a beige camouflage vest. A sandy blond

mustache that adds a decade to his visage. Upon first glance, his presence makes you think he

has seen too much in this world and eaten too little. McNabb looks ill-prepared for anything

outside a cameo in a Nirvana music video. Looks can be deceiving.

     The man widely credited with inventing the fingerboard was Cam Fox Bryant in the late

1970s. The original versions consisted of little more than cardboard, coffee stirring straws, and

axles from deconstructed Hot Wheels toy cars. The 96 millimeter board started out as a

keychain and remained a novelty item until the mid-1990s when skateboard companies began to

see the marketability and profitability of product branding on the miniature boards.

     According to, a leading manufacturer of fingerboards and related gear,

the industry broke the $100 million mark in revenue for the first time in 1999. It is difficult to

estimate the number of people who have joined McNabb in the fingerboard revolution, but the

consensus is, whatever the number, it is growing. There is even an iPhone app, Touchgrind, that

caters to the digital fingerboarder. A YouTube search for fingerboarding videos returns over

9,500 results. Mike McNabb is not alone.

     Among McNabb’s newest converts, Yovani Reyes may be the most fervent. Both young

men work at an The Geisha House restaurant at Atlantic Station in downtown Atlanta. That is

where McNabb introduced Gio (as he is known to his friends) to fingerboarding. The two would

pass the down time at the restaurant in a back storage room fingerboarding. Reyes fell in love

with the activity immediately.

     "The first time I picked up the board, I was hooked. I always wanted to skate, but it is so

intimidating. With your fingers, it is so much less risk," Reyes said.

     The two have a mutually beneficial relationship. McNabb teaches Reyes the

idiosyncracies of the craft, and Reyes, whose father is a carpenter, supplies McNabb with

handmade obstacle courses. Reyes explains, "It’s fun either way, but when you have built the

pieces yourself, it is just that much cooler."

     Corey Custer, the restaurant’s manager, has a surprising take on his employees and their

unusual hobby. "Ordinarily, we wouldn’t want our team members doing anything other than

work when they are on site, but with Mike’s fingerboarding, it seems to be a morale booster for

the employees. Everybody gathers around and there’s a lot of oohing and ahhing. We want our

employees to have fun and they seem to have fun with this. Plus, they are mature enough to

realize that you have to put the board down when it’s time to work. So I don’t think a little

fingerboarding is hurting anyone. The only drawback is when Mike needs a weekend off to

‘follow the board’."

     McNabb has "followed the board" throughout the Southeast.

     "I have been to Charleston, Knoxville, and New Orleans for competitions and shows. The

prize money sucks, if there even is any, but it is fun to go on road trips with my boys."

     McNabb also professes to the tangential benefits of increased dexterity that

fingerboarding offers.

     "I’ve always loved to mess around with cars. When I get done with school I want to be a

mechanic and I really believe that fingerboarding makes me better with my hands. At least when

you do it as much as I do."

     McNabb still occasionally rides his skateboard.

     "Now I can ride with reckless abandon, because if I get hurt, I can still board with my

fingers. That’s the beauty of it. It’s like golf. Me, I hate golf, but they always say you can golf

for your whole life, you never have to give it up. I have that same security with my fingerboard."

     McNabb and his friends have recently started a rock band called Beast The Line. The

phrase refers to a particularly good run at an obstacle course on the fingerboard. McNabb is the

group’s songwriter and drummer. Between songs McNabb has been known to navigate his

fingerboard across and around his drums. And yes, they do have a song called Follow The .


Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Return of Repticon

            Reptile lovers: Your wait is over.  The semiannual Repticon Atlanta Reptile and Exotic
Animal Show returns to Georgia for its tenth year on July 9-10. The exhibition features scaly,
slithering creatures of all kinds: snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, and arachnids. Repticon will be
held at the Gwinnett County Fairground at 2405 Sugarloaf Parkway.
            In addition to dozens of vendors peddling their amphibian and reptilian wares, Repticon
features interactive displays and exhibits that cater to young and old alike. A typical day at the
festival includes an introduction to the fascinating world of tropical dart frogs at 11:00 a.m.  Ken
Panse, known to those in the reptile community as “The Reptile Wrangler,” follows the frogs at
noon with his collection of alligators and turtles. Panse is a crowd favorite who is also available
for children’s parties. At 2 in the afternoon there is a presentation from the good folks at Green
Desert Reptiles, followed at 4 by Arachnids, a show put on by the Exotic Kingdom company. 
            Several Repticon sponsors will be getting in on the fun by providing gifts to be raffled
away at the exhibition. Another aspect of Repticon that allows it to continue to thrive even in
uncertain economic times is its affordability. Adults earn entry for only $10, while children ages
5-12 get in for $5, and as always, kids four and under enter for free. Multiple day VIP passes are
also available upon request.
            A popular pastime for many Repticon enthusiasts is to bring their cameras and treat the
event as an interactive zoo. This was the case for Stephanie Hernandez, a 27-year-old Acworth,
Ga. mother who has attended several previous Repticon shows. Hernandez says of the show,
“My two loves are animals and photography and what better way to combine the two then
Repticon.” Hernandez added, “When I became pregnant with my son six years ago I decided to
give up my other two babies, my two albino ball pythons, to provide a safer environment for my
son. Now, my son and I come to Repticon and I get to see him interact with all these beautiful
creatures and it just brings back so many memories.”
            The comments by Stephanie Hernandez point to the family-friendly atmosphere at
Repticon, but now let me turn my attention to the other side of the table, the business side of the
table:  the vendors. What is it that the vendors get from this traveling exhibition?  Repticon visits
upwards of forty cities a year. It is a year-round endeavor. Repticon puts on exhibitions from
January all the way through early December. Why do they do it?
Do they travel the country for exposure, publicity, a love of animals, or the almighty
dollar.  The answer is a complex yes to all these questions, but it is not as simple as that.
Repticon is profitable for these vendors for all these reasons. Although specific vendors were
unwilling to divulge exactly the amount of my money there bring in from one of these shows, the
consensus among the vendors at large was that it was all worth it. As Tim Koppenhofer from
Special K Reptiles explains, “even if you don’t make a sale that day, if you can make a good
impression and create good word of mouth, appearing at Repticon has benefits that your business
will see down the road. When you are dealing with living creatures your reputation is more
important than if I were selling other goods. There is a great deal of brotherhood among those of
us who travel together. It becomes like an extended family.”
For the proprietor of Fire Ball Pythons, Trey Barnard, it is a matter of perception.
Barnard explains, “Repticon is the biggest thing going in the reptile community from the public
perspective. From a business standpoint it is important to be associated with this exhibition
because when people visit the show they view the vendors as successful. They view us as
Repticon is a celebration. It provides something that, these days, has become increasingly
difficult to find: affordable family entertainment. Those in attendance know it, and more
importantly, the vendors themselves know it and they act accordingly.

For more information visit