Traditional farm towns struggle with
Aug. 19, 2007
of foreign workers changes areas around U.S.
Tucson, Arizona | Published:
Kan. — This is the home of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, of Boot Hill and
the Long Branch Saloon, of cattle drives, buffalo hunters and the romance of
the American West.
But that's the Dodge City
Today, downtown has Mexican
restaurants and stores more reminiscent of shops south of the border than
Main Street Kansas. The city of 25,176 even has a new nickname: "Little
Signs advertising "Envios a
Mexico" — retail outlets where workers send hard-earned wages back home to
Mexico and other countries — hang outside many Dodge City stores. Houses
occasionally fly Mexican flags.
Dodge City … Cactus, Texas
… Fort Morgan, Colo. … Postville, Iowa: For more than 100 years, this region
provided a bucolic idyll and a ready example of American life and values.
Today, iconic farm towns struggle with a new economic model, one that
requires a workforce that is poor and overwhelmingly Hispanic.
It's not easy. The
immigrants who have flooded these communities are stretching schools and law
enforcement. Still, at a time when other rural towns are slowly dying, Dodge
City and meatpacking towns like it boast thriving economies.
"If these people can get
past the gantlet of the border, we welcome them here with open arms," said
Ford County Sheriff Dean Bush, Dodge City's modern-day counterpart to Wyatt
But many of his fellow
citizens seem lost. Randy Ford and his wife, Betty, have lived in Dodge City
for 35 years. They no longer attend the city's Independence Day events. They
can't understand what the singers — Spanish crooners singing Latin favorites
— are saying.
"We don't go anymore
because we don't want to be Mexican," he said. "We want to be American."
Meatpacking changed towns
Just as the arrival of the
Santa Fe Railroad here in 1872 brought white settlers to populate the dusty
towns and farms of a fledgling country, the relocation and consolidation of
the meatpacking industry has transformed these icons of the American West.
The result: diverse, multicultural communities that challenge breadbasket
notions of wheat fields, white fences and even whiter demographics.
The transformation of the
nation's meatpacking industry began in 1960 when plants began moving out of
cities in favor of their livestock sources in right-to-work states like
Kansas. The first big slaughterhouse came to Emporia in the 1960s, followed
by plants near Garden City and in Dodge City in the 1980s.
For Dodge City — famed as
the "Queen of the Cowtowns" during its cowboy heyday — the advent of the
slaughter plants seemed a natural fit.
"They are a major hub of
business and economic activity and a huge employer," said Ted Schroeder,
agricultural economist at Kansas State University. "You can't go into those
communities without sensing the presence and importance of those large
economic facilities. Everything around there is either working with,
complementing or part of that industry."
meatpackers were swallowed up by giants like Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Meat
Solutions Corp., Swift & Co. and National Beef Packing Co.
Their massive slaughter
plants today routinely sit on the outskirts of rural towns. Huge feedlots
stretching at times beyond the horizon now dot the wind-swept prairie where
buffalo once grazed.
Wages draw immigrant
Arturo Ponce is a U.S.
citizen now — coordinator of the HIV/AIDS prevention program run by the
United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries. But it wasn't so long ago that
he lived in a dilapidated trailer, just down the street from the Cargill
plant in Dodge City.
This, he recently told his
14-year-old son, was where your parents got their start in Kansas. Here, he
said, we crowded with 13 other people, four families, into three bedrooms.
Now, almost 20 years later,
the same trailer remains crammed with meatpacking workers coming to and from
"It is a cycle that
continues to repeat itself," Ponce said.
The same story: Decent
wages are a magnet for poor immigrants. And the wages paid by the
meatpackers are decent, though far from extravagant.
The poverty rate in Dodge
City plunged from 28 percent in 1980 to 14 percent in 2000. The poverty rate
also was halved in Guymon, Okla., where there are an estimated 600,000 head
of cattle on farms within 25 miles of the Seaboard Foods plant.
But no one is living high
on the hog, or cow. Dodge City's per capita income of $15,538 in 2000 may be
an improvement, but it still remains far below the $21,587 national average.
In Cactus, the average per
capita income has increased, but only to $8,340. Many who work at the Swift
plant in Cactus live in former military barracks or in dilapidated rental
trailer homes where yards contain little more than dirt, weeds and rocks.
It's a hard life. In
Cactus, the population is more than 90 percent Latino. There are no doctors
or banks. Most plant workers deal only in cash, making them easy targets for
theft. As much as 70 percent of offenses in town relate to alcohol use,
especially on weekend nights when cars cruise up and down the main drag for
Educators have found
themselves grappling with language barriers, academic gaps and poverty.
School districts once troubled with aging and tax-resistant local
populations and dwindling school enrollments suddenly had to deal with the
crowded classrooms that came with young migrant families.
school officials count 23 different languages spoken by immigrant families,
though the town is overwhelmingly Latino.
About 44 percent of
students in Dodge City have limited English proficiency, prompting the
district to establish a "newcomer program" for immigrant students geared
heavily toward language acquisition.
Just a decade ago, about 70
percent of Dodge City students were English-speaking whites. Today, that
statistic has flipped: About 70 percent of the 5,800 students who now attend
Dodge City schools are Hispanic.
There has been some
success. An analysis of high school graduation rates at meatpacking towns
nationwide shows improvement between 1980 and 2000: up 9 percent in Dodge
City; up 5 percent in Cactus; up 6 percent in Crete, Neb.
Still, graduation rates
were below state averages. For example, the graduation rate of slightly more
than 17 percent in Cactus was still well below the state average of nearly
76 percent or the national average of more than 80 percent.
affect area cultures
On the high plains of
northern Colorado, the latest wave of settlers to hit Morgan County has some
worried that the character of its largest city — Fort Morgan, with its neat
lawns decorated with gnomes or holiday ornaments — would be altered beyond
Cargill operates a
slaughterhouse here, employing about 20 percent of the town's population and
processing 4,300 head of cattle per day. Morgan County saw its Hispanic
population double in the 1990s — jumping to 8,473 by the 2000 U.S. Census.
More than a century before
the meatpackers consolidated and Cargill Inc. set up shop in Morgan County,
Germans who had settled in Russia arrived here after Czar Alexander II took
away their autonomy.
"It's been a German town
for a long time, every morning at 5 o'clock, 5 or 6 o'clock, it's like a
cuckoo clock, German ladies out sweeping their sidewalks," said longtime
resident Perry Roberts. "And now they're (immigrants) not mowing their lawn,
and so they're trying to pass laws to get people to keep up their lawns and
not park their car on them."
Iowa, had long been a meatpacking town, but the old HyGrade slaughterhouse
had been shuttered for seven years when New York butcher and entrepreneur
Aaron Rubashkin bought it in 1987. The city has been in transition ever
A stream of Hasidic Jews
soon followed, providing the executive staff to run the operation and the
rabbis needed to slaughter animals in accordance with strict kosher rules.
The first wave of workers
were eastern Europeans, immigrants from Bosnia, Poland, Russia and former
Soviet Republics who had initially spent time in bigger East Coast cities
before moving to Iowa.
But in the last decade,
Hispanics have become the majority. The result is that a town that barely
covers two square miles is home to people from 24 nationalities speaking 17
languages. In 1990, Postville's population was 1,472; now, it is estimated
at more than 2,500, nearly 33 percent foreign-born.
Last year, Councilman Jeff
Reinhardt caused a stir by taking aim at two of the city's ethnic groups in
a letter to the local newspaper.
"One group wants to isolate
itself … and wanting a different day for the Sabbath," he wrote. Another
"sends money back to foreign countries and brings a lack of respect for our
laws and culture, which contributes to unwed mothers, trash in the streets,
unpaid bills, drugs, forgery and other crimes."
That's bigotry, cried local
religious leaders — but understandable, they said, in a time of wholesale