LATINO VOICES
12/08/2011 07:12 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2011

Beardstown, Small Midwestern Meatpacking Town, Wrestles With Immigration Issue

Pam DeSollar, a kindergarten principal in the small town of Beardstown, Ill., remembers when the first Latinos started showing up in her sleepy manufacturing community 20 years ago.

Nearly a third of Beardstown's seven thousand residents are Latino, according to 2010 U.S. Census estimates -- a fact locals attribute to the opening of a meatpacking plant on the outskirts of town. In 2009, 17.3 percent of Beardstown was foreign born, whereas in 1990, 99.3 percent of the town's population was U.S. born, according to census data.

Now, more than half of Desollar's kindergartners are Hispanic, she says.

While immigration is often thought of as a border-state issue, employment opportunities in agriculture and manufacturing are increasingly drawing Latin American immigrants to small towns in middle America, once typically a stronghold for Republican voters. Beardstown has experienced an amplified version of this trend.

"I still remember our first Latino student," DeSollar recalls.

"This little boy -- cute as can be -- with perfectly combed hair, really nice clean blue jeans, and a pressed white dress shirt walked in our front doors with his parents behind him," she said. "The boy's parents couldn't speak a word of English."

Shortly after, necessity forced DeSollar to find the first bilingual secretary in Beardstown -- who was regularly pulled away from her desk as the immigrant population continued to grow.

"If a Mexican woman went into labor, doctors would run over to my school and pull our secretary to the hospital to translate," she recalls. "Eventually, I had to say, 'Look guys -- you're going to have to find your own translator.'"

The public school system began a voluntary bilingual education program in which students learn to become fluent in both English and Spanish, according to DeSollar. Many native families have opted in. DeSollar said the immigration wave has enriched the education of her students and made Beardstown a better place to live.

"I cannot think of one negative they have brought to our town. It's really been so positive for the community," she said. " I'm sure you could find some people who would say the opposite, but it'd have to be the real minority."

That minority certainly exists, says Beardstown Mayor Bob Walters, who says initial culture clash was inevitable.

"You know, we were an all-white, Redneck community for a long long time -- so of course some people weren't happy about it," Walters, the mayor for 22 years, said.

Walters says the new arrivals remain a "hot button issue" in restaurants and coffee shops. The most common claims are that immigrants are sending their money back to Mexico instead of investing it in the community, that they are "taking jobs" that would otherwise go to native Beardstonians and that they are committing crimes, he says.

But Walters points out that the immigrant community has had a positive economic impact on the small town. And his review of crime statistics revealed that immigration has had no effect whatsoever, he says.

"It used to be that something happened in Beardstown, and people would blame it on a Mexican," Walters said. "But, if you look at the numbers, there's really no difference in the rate of crimes between Hispanics and whites in our city. It's just not the case."

Researchers Mark Mather and Kevin Pollard of the Population Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan research organization, say that Latino immigration has helped revive the populations of small towns such as Beardstown all across the Midwest and Great Plains. Between 2000 and 2006, the researchers found that total population in small towns and rural areas increased only by 3 percent, while Hispanic population grew by 22 percent. Since 1990, the Hispanic population in small towns and rural areas has more than doubled.

While some credit Latino immigrants with reviving small towns like Beardstown, others say their arrival has led to a clash of cultures. As a result, draconian measures on immigration enforcement have more resonance with long-time residents of these communities.

Small-town voters are more likely to hold stringent views on immigration control than their counterparts in the suburbs and cities, according to a recent NYTimes/CBS News poll. According to the report, "44 percent of urban voters and 37 percent of suburban voters said illegal immigrants should be able to eventually apply for citizenship, while a plurality of rural voters took a different point of view, with 48 percent saying illegal immigrants should be deported."

Walters says that he has seen resistance in his own community. But, as the years pass, the two cultures have integrated more and more -- with Latino immigrants participating in the town's annual film festival and old Beardstown families attending this year's Cinco de Mayo parade.

"It's much better today than it was 10 years ago," he said. "The more they mingle with the local people, and the more the local people get to know them, they begin to understand each other bit by bit."

The mayor says his six-year-old granddaughter, whose best friend is of Mexican descent, is the greatest symbol of the changing times.

"She speaks perfect Spanish to her best friend, and then she switches back into English with me," he says. "And that little Mexican girl can speak English almost better than I can. And they switch back and forth with each other."

Walters added: "I tell people, 'You need to look at our kids.' The kids don't seem to be too worried about it."

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