N.C. Officials Learn from Mexico Visits

Ethnic tensions in North Carolina are on the rise as the state's Hispanic community has boomed. To foster understanding, a nongovernmental organization is sending local policy makers on trips to Mexico. Officials say the experience has helped them in their jobs.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, many people from Latin America look to the United States to find work. And this week, we've been listening to the effort to adapt to a rapidly growing immigrant population in North Carolina. The influx has rattled those who run the schools, social services, and police departments. To help them cope, a unique program sends local officials to Mexico for a week.

In a second of two reports, NPR's Jennifer Ludden examines the impact that trip has had once the officials return home.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Ask organizer Millie Ravenel what difference her program, Latino Initiative, makes, and you'll hear the story of Rick Givens. He was on the Chatham County Commission back in 1998.

Ms. MILLIE RAVENEL (Executive Director, Latino Initiative): He was the chair of the county commissioners, actually, who had written a letter to the INS, saying come and get these undocumented workers and route them back to their homes.

LUDDEN: Givens was frustrated at how much illegal immigrants were costing his county in public services. Then he took the weeklong trip to Mexico, touring impoverished villages, sharing meals with families whose children had all left for the U.S.

Ms. RAVENEL: When he came back, the media was right there saying, you know, well, Mr. Givens, what did you learn? And it was so amazing. And he said, well, I learned that I was wrong.

LUDDEN: Givens confirms he still feels that way today. Not that it's wrong to oppose illegal immigration, just wrong to think that a local official can do anything to stop such a mass influx, given Mexican desires, and U.S. economic demands. So Givens turned to better integrating North Carolina's Mexicans, which is what most people in this program say they aim for.

Sarah Bradshaw is social services director in rural Sampson County. On her trip to Mexico last year, she was struck by cultural differences.

Ms. SARAH BRADSHAW (Social Services Director, Sampson County): To see - walk along and just see a child all by herself, you know, just walking along the street. That's customary there. And that, you know, seen in our area, we would immediately, you know, get a call - my office would - and it would be taken as, you know, a neglect case.

LUDDEN: Back in North Carolina, Bradshaw lodged an effort to educate Hispanics about U.S. laws and the services offered. But it wasn't easy. Her colleague, County Manager Scott Sauer, says they first set up an information booth near the local Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store.

Mr. SCOTT SAUER (County Manager, Sampson County): As we tried to usher them in to a room over in the corner, it was almost providing the fear that we were setting them up for some type of an immigration sting. And they were very uncomfortable following us down a hall and into a remote location.

LUDDEN: So Bradshaw set up her booth at a local port processing plant, where hundreds of Latinos worked.

Unidentified Woman #1: This is our table. Hi, Olivia.

LUDDEN: On this day, dozens of workers stop by between shifts to collect Spanish language pamphlets on childcare, Medicaid, and English classes. Health Department officials conduct free blood sugar level tests to check for diabetes.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Foreign Language)

Mr. JOSE SANCHEZ (Port Worker): (Speaking Foreign Language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Jose Sanchez winces at the prick in his finger, but gets a good reading.

Unidentified Woman #3: One twenty-two.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LUDDEN: Sanchez says he's been in the U.S. four years and this is the closest he has ever come to a doctor.

Since the Latino Initiative began eight years ago, participants say that the projects that have grown from it have helped stop an outbreak of rubella, helped recruit and license more badly needed nurses from among North Carolina's Hispanics, and have saved public money by informing qualified immigrants how to use their Tax I.D. Number to get insurance. Yet, not everyone is impressed.

Mr. JUVENCIO PERALTA (Latino Initiative): (Speaking Foreign Language)

LUDDEN: Juvencio Peralta does outreach for a community college in eastern North Carolina. As he pins up flyers to recruit more Hispanic students, he says the Latino Initiative is a great idea. In fact, he helped develop it. But driving to his next stop, Peralta says he's been disappointed that not all who go on the trips take the programs seriously.

Mr. PERALTA: And some big corporations here, I mean, they don't. They just -it's something that just looks good, you know...

LUDDEN: On the resume.

Mr. PERALTA: On the resume.

LUDDEN: Peralta also wonders why spend money going all the way to Mexico, when there's plenty of Latinos living in poverty right here in North Carolina? Still, Peralta agrees with the programs' founders, that so far, the immigration debate in North Carolina is not as divisive as it's gotten in some states. And Millie Ravenel would like to think her program has something to do with that. She points to lasting bonds it builds among whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

Ms. RAVENEL: There are people from all of those communities, who can pick up the phone and call somebody on that other side of the community, and get a call back. That's been incredible for us, that leaders will tell us, I get a call back now.

LUDDEN: And seeing Mexico firsthand can change attitudes profoundly. Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton says it made him realize the attraction of the U.S. is more than just a bigger paycheck.

Mr. JIMMY THORNTON (Sheriff, Sampson County): I thought that they just came over for the sake of working, OK. But they're coming over for the sake of better opportunities, all right? And the opportunities are here for anyone.

LUDDEN: We've got to figure out how to live our immigrants, says Thornton, because they're not going back to Mexico.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find the first part of Jennifer's report at npr.org.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Policymakers Get Cross-Border View of Immigration

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

Maria Alvarez and Ruth Chaparro i 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 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 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."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.