Policymakers Get Cross-Border View of Immigration

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Jennifer Ludden reports on the Latino Initiative program in a two-part report for Morning Edition.

Maria Alvarez and Ruth Chaparro i

Ruth Chaparro, (right) multicultural director for the city of Salisbury, N.C., meets Maria Alvarez at her one-room home in El Gusano, Mexico. Chaparro was one of several North Carolina policymakers to journey to Mexico as part of the weeklong Latino Initiative program. Jennifer Ludden, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Ludden, NPR
Maria Alvarez and Ruth Chaparro

Ruth Chaparro, (right) multicultural director for the city of Salisbury, N.C., meets Maria Alvarez at her one-room home in El Gusano, Mexico. Chaparro was one of several North Carolina policymakers to journey to Mexico as part of the weeklong Latino Initiative program.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR
Hispanic population growth in North Carolina i

North Carolina's Hispanic population has skyrocketed since 1970. Latinos now account for about 6 percent of the state's population. Doug Beach for NPR/Source: U.S. Census hide caption

itoggle caption Doug Beach for NPR/Source: U.S. Census
Hispanic population growth in North Carolina

North Carolina's Hispanic population has skyrocketed since 1970. Latinos now account for about 6 percent of the state's population.

Doug Beach for NPR/Source: U.S. Census
A woman makes pottery at a cooperative in the central Mexican town of Pozos. i

A woman makes pottery at a cooperative in the central Mexican town of Pozos. The cooperative tries to generate income to keep people from leaving for the United States to support their families. The employees told American visitors that they earn the equivalent of $30 a week working full time. Jennifer Ludden, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Ludden, NPR
A woman makes pottery at a cooperative in the central Mexican town of Pozos.

A woman makes pottery at a cooperative in the central Mexican town of Pozos. The cooperative tries to generate income to keep people from leaving for the United States to support their families. The employees told American visitors that they earn the equivalent of $30 a week working full time.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR

Back in 1998, Rick Givens was chairman of the Chatham County Commissioners in North Carolina, and he was frustrated at mounting illegal immigration. Worried about the cost of health care and social services, Givens made local headlines when he wrote a letter to federal immigration officials, asking them to come to his state, round up illegal Mexicans and send them home.

Then Givens took part in a program called the Latino Initiative, which was then just getting under way. It's run by the University of North Carolina's Center for International Understanding, and the highlight is a weeklong visit to Mexico. That's when Givens says his "aha" moment came.

It was a Friday night, and he was having dinner with a couple who had three sons living in the United States illegally. One son was home visiting, but planned to be back at his job in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. When Givens asked how he could make such a journey so quickly, the man said it was simple: A paid smuggler would tell him when there was no one watching the border so he could slip across.

"That told me both sides are crooked, and this whole thing is far above our heads," Givens says.

Givens says he realized no local official could do anything to reduce illegal immigration, so the better course was to help integrate those foreign workers already in the United States.

'You Internalize It in Your Gut'

Each year since then, the Latino Initiative has sent dozens of policymakers to Mexico. The groups include school principals, police chiefs, business owners and executives, and social-service workers, among others. The program's executive director, Millie Ravenel, says some have never even left North Carolina before the trip; seeing the poverty in Mexico gives them a visceral sense of why people migrate to the United States.

"You internalize it in your gut," Ravenel says. "And when you really understand something powerfully, it moves you to act."

On one recent trip, a busload of North Carolinians bump over a rutted dirt road to the isolated farming village of El Gusano, in central Mexico. This economically depressed area has one of the highest rates of migration to the United States; nearly all the men in El Gusano have left.

The North Carolinians split into small groups and head off into the cluster of concrete block homes. Kathy Bragg, of the American Red Cross, and John McKay, the president of South Piedmont Community College, enter the tiny, one-room house of Maria Alvarez. Its walls are painted bright pink and filled with family photos.

Alvarez's husband died a decade ago. All three of her sons live in Ft. Worth, Texas. Her daughter still lives at home and is getting married soon to a local man who had lived in Texas until he was recently deported.

"I think I'm going to go," Alvarez tells Bragg and McKay, explaining that she'll probably find some way to walk across the Rio Grande. "I want to see my grandson. He turns 1 year old tomorrow."

That night, over dinner an hour away in the lovely colonial city of Guanajuato, the North Carolinians agonize over the plight of those in El Gusano. Some are angry at the Mexican government for tolerating such poverty, and for the corruption they suspect is widespread.

There's also anger at the U.S. government for not pressing Mexico more on its internal economic policies, and for taking advantage of the labor and taxes of immigrants without allowing them to be legalized.

Reaching Out in North Carolina

Once back in North Carolina, those who take part in the "Latino Initiative" are expected to use what they've learned to reach out to the Hispanics in their area.

Police chiefs have set up Spanish-language crime hotlines and organized seminars on safe driving. Health officials have launched vaccination drives and helped recruit and license badly needed nurses from among North Carolina's Hispanics.

Givens, the county chairman who long ago wrote that letter to the INS, says his county actually saves public money by informing qualified immigrants how to use their tax ID number to get insurance.

Holly Blackwelder sits on the Board of Education in Cabarrus County. She took the trip to Mexico this year. She says that, because Mexican students were so quiet in the classroom, she had always assumed they didn't want to integrate into American society.

But while visiting a Mexican elementary school, she realized "they almost go with the concept [that] you don't speak unless you're spoken to."

"That's very different from our society," Blackwelder says.

Her traveling companion, Susan Klutz, the mayor of Salisbury, N.C., was struck by another misperception: the widespread notion in this country that Mexicans want to come to the United States.

"All we've seen and heard here is how sad the Mexicans are that their family members are leaving," Klutz says. "They're not happy. They just don't have a choice. And it really does break your heart to see that."

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