Small Midwest Town Copes With Immigration

Part I of the Report

Tiny Beardstown, Ill.,has seen an influx of immigrants in the past decade. A pork processing plant first attracted immigrants to the town. Town officials estimate that Hispanics, there both legally and illegally, make up a third of the 6,000 residents.

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One reason immigration has become such a hot topic in Congress is that recently arrived immigrants are scattered across much of the country. Tiny Beardstown, Illinois, is like many places that have seen an influx in the past decade. A pork processing plant first attracted immigrants there. Now, town officials estimate that Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, make up a third of the 6,000 residents of the community.

Yesterday, we heard from some Mexican workers in Beardstown. Today, NPR's Jennifer Ludden examines how the town is coping with its changing population.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Beardstown is in farm country. Flat land, lush corn and soybean fields, silos looming over red barns. Mayor Bob Walters takes me on an early morning tour. We cruise tree-lined streets of clapboard houses, past front porches and plastic kiddy pools ready for the hot day. Walters says there is no one Mexican neighborhood, but he can point out the houses where immigrants live.

Mayor BOB WALTERS (Beardstown, Illinois): For example, right here, this was a garage converted into a house. It's hard to tell how many Hispanic families live in there.

LUDDEN: Walters has had a crackdown on people parking in yards, explaining it damages city waterlines. He points to another corner lot.

Mayor WALTERS: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven - seven cars at a single family dwelling.

LUDDEN: He's tried to tweak zoning ordinances to address overcrowding, but says you can only do so much without risking a charge of discrimination. So he's fielded complaints from neighbors.

Mayor WALTERS: If they're used to seeing little old Mary out there doing her gardening every day and then they wake up one morning and here's 10 or 15 Hispanics running around and different ones coming in at all times of the night, it's a shock.

LUDDEN: As we drive, clusters of children head to school on the edge of town. And in this backdrop of quintessential rural white America it is stunning to see that nearly every child walking by is Hispanic.

(Soundbite of children laughing)

LUDDEN: As they line up for summer school, the future of Beardstown is clear. This year's graduating senior class was about 25 percent Hispanic. This year's kindergarten class, 50 percent.

Buenos dias. (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Two years ago, Beardstown's schools started a dual-language program, with the teaching day divided between Spanish and English. Superintendent Robert Bagby says it's voluntary but 70 percent of students have signed up for it.

Mr. ROBERT BAGBY (Superintendent, Beardstown Community School District): We feel like when children come out of those classes, they will truly be bi-literate. They will read, write and speak in two languages. And in my opinion, anyone that is truly bi-literate will shoot to the top of every hiring list in America.

LUDDEN: Mayor Walters points out Beardstown was settled by German immigrants and no one goes around speaking German today. He thinks the same may happen with Spanish. But for now, he sees the town in the midst of a profound transition, and it is difficult.

Mr. JIM BRAZEL(ph) (Chief Paramedic, Beardstown Fire Department): Okay, wake up. (unintelligible).

LUDDEN: At a local firehouse, ambulance chief Jim Brazel doesn't have a single full time staffer who speaks Spanish.

Mr. BRAZEL: Some of my guys are - they're kind of bull-headed. They think, well, if I move to Mexico, I'll learn Spanish, you know. And I can see their point.

LUDDEN: Brazel recruited a Latino a few years back, but three times he couldn't pass the state exam. And the test wasn't offered in Spanish. Brazel's been reduced to sticking a pocket medical Spanish guide in every ambulance. But he says the language barrier isn't his biggest problem. Worse, he says, is that so many illegal immigrants work under assumed names.

Mr. BRAZEL: We had a kid last year that got hit on a bicycle, and we asked him what his mom and dad's name was so we could get a hold of them. He didn't know what name they were using so, you know, that took a while to get a hold of them.

Mr. KEVIN KLEINSMITH(ph): Can I help you? Okay.

LUDDEN: Just off the town square, insurance agent Kevin Kleinsmith has embraced the new population. His grandparents moved here from Germany for a better life, and he sees the same motive among Hispanics today.

Mr. KLEINSMITH: All righty. (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Kleinsmith says 20 years ago, Beardstown was in crisis. The town's largest employer, a pork processing plant, had briefly shut down, part of an industry-wide overhaul that quashed unions and cut salaries nearly in half. That's when large numbers of Hispanics began coming to work here. Those salaries have only now risen to what they once were. But Beardstown is growing while communities all around shrink.

Mr. KLEINSMITH: We're on the map. We've got Wal-Mart now. It also brought a lot of traffic to the downtown area here. A lot of storefronts here where most of the downtown buildings were closed up are now opened and they have something in them.

LUDDEN: Kleinsmith says there has been tensions. They erupted about a decade ago at a Mexican-owned tavern just behind his office. As locals tell it, a Mexican man killed an American. The next night crosses were lit and the tavern burned to the ground. Kleinsmith says it's funny how things can change.

Mr. KLEINSMITH: The families that were, as I said, at the forefront, that were the most outspoken anti-Mexican families here in town, now have daughters that are married to the Hispanics they were fighting.

LUDDEN: Standing outside city hall, Mayor Walters says hard feelings are still just under the surface. He says there's resentment that some Mexicans use the free health clinic in town, declining to buy health care coverage yet they manage to wire money back to their families each month.

Mayor WALTERS: You know, I could be a populist, as I've said many times before. I could go over here to city park and stand up and say, let's run them all out of town on a donkey, let's get rid of them. And I'd have a lot of cheerleaders. Trust me, I really would. But that's not the right thing to do and that's not going to solve the problem.

LUDDEN: Mexicans here see plenty of problems, too. A few months ago, Beardstown police closed down a quinceanera, a sweet 15 party that's culturally akin to a baht mitzvah. The city said organizers didn't have the right liquor license. The host said they weren't given the right information. The girl's parents sued the town for discrimination. A ruling is pending.

Community activist Julio Flores says despite such confrontations, Hispanics are slowly settling in to this part of Illinois corn country.

Mr. JULIO FLORES (Community Activist): (Through translator) A few families have bought land outside town and they're building their own ranchos. It means they're staying put. This is their home.

LUDDEN: Flores sees two cultures blending. This week, Hispanics will join in Fourth of July festivities. And, oh yes, come September, he says even Anglos will turn out for the food and dancing as Beardstown holds its annual celebration of Mexican Independence Day.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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