Arkansas Community Sees Changing Face of Immigration

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released a report that projects that whites will no longer be a majority of Americans by 2042. One community dealing with burgeoning racial diversity is Gentry, Ark., where a significant number of Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia are settling. Gentry residents Blia Xeng, Doua Thor and Randy Barrett discuss the immigrant experience and how Gentry is changing.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the Magazine Mavens, editors of special interest magazines that target emerging multi-cultural audiences, join us to talk about what's in their latest issues.

But first, America is expected to become more diverse by mid-century. While non-whites make up the nation's minority now, recent projections by the U.S. Census show minorities will become the majority population by the year 2042. Many ethnic groups have already formed large communities throughout the United States, often in cities, but some have also settled in rural areas where ethnic diversity is a newer phenomenon. For example, the Hmong from Southeast Asia have been moving to rural areas of Arkansas.

Orignally the Hmong came to America as refugees after the Vietnam War and settled in the Midwest, mostly in urban centers. But many Hmong families have started migrating south to Arkansas where they're buying farms and creating new communities. Here to tell us more is Doua Thor, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. DOUA THOR (Executive Director, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center): Thank you.

NEARY: So, if you could remind us, Ms. Thor, who are the Hmong and how is it that they came to be in the United States?

Ms. THOR: Sure, Lynn. The Hmong are an ethnic minority from Laos, and the majority of them are in this country mostly because of the involvement with the CIA after the Vietnam War. Many were recruited on behalf of the United States, and when the U.S. retreated out of Vietnam in Southeast Asia, many came to the U.S. as refugees.

NEARY: How old were you when you came to this country?

Ms. THOR: About two years old.

NEARY: And where did you grow up?

Ms. THOR: We were resettled in Detroit, Michigan. So I grew up in Hamtramck and then I grew up in Detroit most of my life and then a little bit in the suburbs.

NEARY: And there was a pretty big Hmong community there, presumably?

Ms. THOR: There was a sizable Hmong community. For a long time it was the fourth or fifth largest population in the country, actually, around 7,000.

NEARY: So what started this migration to Arkansas and why Arkansas?

Ms. THOR: I think that there is a mix of different things that happened at the same time. I mean, in particular, you know, our families and our communities come from a very strong sense of being connected to land and farming. And I think part of my parents and their dream has always been to own land, even though they were resettled in an urban city. And at the time when there was a move into the Arkansas area, which is about, you know, seven to 10 years ago.

The population, I think, found out through word of mouth that there was an opportunity to really own a lot of land, at the same time have a business, and so many migrated because of that dream and the opportunity at that time.

NEARY: I'm always fascinated by that word of mouth. Somebody had to have heard first that land is available in Arkansas. I mean, how people must have been looking, I presume, because they wanted to move to the country.

Ms. THOR: There's always an opportunity or there's always the need to look for opportunities, right, to better their lives, to become more self-sufficient, to have economic prosperity, and the word of mouth piece is really important in our communities. Language access is really important and so the ability to read newspapers and to, you know, access articles in English and all those things were difficult. And I think relying on family members and those who could see opportunities along the way is some of the best ways that people really embraced those.

NEARY: So you had grown up by the time your parents decided to move to Arkansas?

Ms. THOR: Yes, I was already in college, and when they decided to move it was also because my siblings and myself, we were much older and they had an opportunity now. They didn't have to raise children anymore.

NEARY: Well, we have your father on the phone now from Arkansas. Blia Xeng is calling us from his farm outside Lincoln, Arkansas. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BLIA XENG: Oh, thank you.

NEARY: Tell me about why you decided to move to Arkansas. What was important to you about living in a rural area like Arkansas?

Mr. XENG: Well, at first, when I come to United States, we settle at Detroit, Michigan. At first, when I come, my sponsor put me on the work in the hospital, nine years and I got lay off. And then I went to look for a factory. While we live in Laos, I'm also a farmer. And the reason we decide to move down here, because I'm getting old and one reason is for the cold weather and also I like to live in the country which is farmer, and that's why I'm also down here.

NEARY: Yeah. And how is it working out? Tell me about your farm. Is it working out?

Mr. XENG: Right now, it is working OK. When I first come like five years ago, I can make money. I mean, which is enough to run the farm and feed me and my family. But right now, it's a little bit tough because the gas is going up and there's no money raise from the company, so it's very tough right now.

NEARY: Yeah. Same for everybody around the country, I think, right now. Well, thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Xeng.

Mr. XENG: Oh, thank you.

NEARY: Blia Xeng is a Hmong farmer and he lives near Lincoln, Arkansas. And if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Doua Thor, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. And with us now is Randy Barrett, he's the superintendent of schools in Gentry, Arkansas. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Barrett.

Mr. RANDY BARRETT (Superintendent, Gentry Schools, Arkansas): Thank you and it's good to be with you today.

NEARY: Tell me, how does your school system work to accommodate this new population, the Hmong population, that is moving into the area?

Mr. BARRETT: Well, we are a rural school district in Northwest Arkansas, and for many years we were predominantly Caucasian. We had very limited ethnic diversity within our school district. The greatest non-white group at that time were Native American. We're very close to Oklahoma and so there was a rich heritage there, and there was a little bit of rough spots there in the beginning. And I think anytime that a new (unintelligible) comes into new community, until we get to learn each other and to know each other, you always have some minor transition problems, but we had some community meetings when that time was occurring at the beginning and...

NEARY: When you say rough spots, let me just ask you what you mean by that. Tensions? Were there...

Mr. BARRETT: Yes, and there was some tension and it certainly had nothing to do with the adult population, I don't think. And many of the old things that happened with us were things that just happened with young people, young adults.

NEARY: They would fight with each other, is that what you mean?

Mr. BARRETT: We do. We had some fights there at the beginning, primarily, I guess, between Hmong population and some of our Hispanic students. We brought in - because we're quite serious about, you know, having a good educational program, and that so, we begin with safety - we brought in the National Crime Prevention Council and the Outreach to New Americans program. I had community meetings and we got those things worked out.

NEARY: Let me turn to Doua Thor for a moment, because, Doua, you grew up in Detroit and I imagine there are some young people who are moving with their families from bigger urban centers like Detroit or Minneapolis that move into this rural area, it has to be tough on this younger generation. What are some of the issues that these families are dealing with, that you know about?

Ms. THOR: Yes, so I think the population in Arkansas, the Hmong population is a mixed population there. First generation, like my father, who go to own farm and be much more connected to land. And then there is a wave of also second generation, many who are at the University of Arkansas and the school systems, are working in industry there. So I think there is a mix. I mean, I think, in general, the intergeneration general issues are always a part of the issues within the community, as well as when you go down there, I think it's very important for both sides of the family to just support each other and I think that's why many young people do move with their family member and their parents. While they don't traditionally live with them anymore, they do support them often.

NEARY: Did your parents face discrimination when they first moved to Arkansas that you know about?

Ms. THOR: My understanding is that they did face some discrimination, also because it is a very new area, like I'm sure that when many Southeast Asian refugees were resettled many years ago in the Twin Cities or in California, you had areas that were almost all Caucasian, and then all of a sudden you do have an influx of a new type of community, and I think there was very little understanding about the history or the commitment of our community to this country, and also that many had worked really hard to own farms and were there because they actually wanted to invest in those communities and that economy, too.

NEARY: Well, here's my question. Do you - an organization like yours, you go in after the people have already migrated to an area and start helping them. Is any groundwork ever laid beforehand for people moving into a new area?

Ms. THOR: There is a mix of different strategies. We're a national organization that does policy analysis, as well as advocacy. And sometimes you can gage where communities are going to move and you can prepare. In the cases like Arkansas, in many ways, the communities are ahead of some of the work. So you never thought the poultry industry would be on the horizon for the community and they actually already moved there. And so you do come in afterwards to support and try to offer as much help as you can.

NEARY: And then, as we heard from Mr. Barrett, you have the established Caucasian community that's been there for many generations. You have another ethnic group, like the Hispanics, and then this new ethnic group moves in, the Hmong. A lot of tension there and for different reasons among the different groups.

Ms. THOR: Many are well intentioned, right? But the understanding of the idea that when the country is having a hard economy, when things are difficult that maybe it's because of immigrants or it's because of these new diverse populations. But the truth is, actually, they add a lot of validity and they add a lot of support to the communities there and it does take some time, and in particular, I think it takes a lot of leaders to really be able to pull individuals together and really spend some time talking through some of the difficult issues.

NEARY: Mr. Barrett, I imagine more and more communities around the country may eventually be absorbing and welcoming new immigrant groups. So I'm wondering what you've really learned from your experience in Gentry that might be helpful to other communities.

Mr. BARRETT: I would say to a place where any new group, any different profile (unintelligible) moved in, make sure that you talk to each other from the beginning. Make sure that everyone has an understanding of each other's views, values, beliefs, commitments. One of the things that we did that I think helped somewhat, we had a lady that teaches at our primary school, (unintelligible), that we got to translate our policy books, something so simple as policies into the Hmong language and publish it on our Web site. And it become a focal point, I think, a talking point, so that some of our non-English-speaking parents could actually be able to see our school rules and policies in their own language. And I think it was appreciated.

NEARY: Great. Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Barrett.

Mr. BARRETT: Thank you, ma'am.

NEARY: Randall Barrett is the superintendent of schools in Gentry, Arkansas. And thanks also to Doua Thor for joining us. She is the executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center and she joined us here in our Washington studio. Her father, farmer Blia Xeng, joined us by phone from his home in Arkansas. So good to have you with us.

Ms. THOR: Thank you very much.

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