Rural Garden City, Kansas, Immigrant Population Faces Threats Under Trump Administration Decades ago, Garden City, Kan., embraced the meat industry, and immigrants flocked there for jobs. The city worked hard to absorb newcomers, but now its economy and diverse community are in jeopardy.
NPR logo

A Thriving Rural Town's Winning Formula Faces New Threats Under Trump Administration

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/516016940/516064796" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Thriving Rural Town's Winning Formula Faces New Threats Under Trump Administration

A Thriving Rural Town's Winning Formula Faces New Threats Under Trump Administration

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/516016940/516064796" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to Garden City, Kan., which doesn't fit the stereotype of a small, Midwestern city. It is isolated and rural. But it's also economically thriving and culturally diverse. Decades ago, Garden City embraced the meatpacking industry, and immigrants flocked there for jobs. The city worked hard to absorb them, but now its blueprint for success is under threat. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: This is a place with lots of cultures and cultural hubs. One of them is in a metal building in a commercial strip near the outskirts of town.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: African Somali shop is here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

MORRIS: Shelves overflow with bright African clothes and African food. In back, there's a big TV playing African soccer, some folding chairs and tables where guys like Marsal Maleye hang out after work.

MARSAL MALEYE: Seven years in Kansas and never see - someone tells me, are you from Africa? Are you from this, this, this? Never. So that's why I prefer Garden City will be my house and rest of my life.

MORRIS: Garden City has built a vibrant economy in a difficult environment by welcoming decades of immigrant labor. But that model faces three distinct challenges. And one cropped up earlier this month when immigrants stopped coming. Amy Longa is with the International Rescue Committee, an agency that helps resettle refugees.

AMY LONGA: For me - Garden City office in particular - I don't have any scheduled arrival that's going to arrive in the next coming days or weeks.

MORRIS: That's a problem because meatpacking, the bedrock industry here, is hard, dirty work with high turnover. Garden City's labor market is tight. Unemployment is way below the national average. And Longa, who came from Uganda a decade ago, says refugees are motivated workers.

LONGA: It's almost no plan B. It's a plan A. You become an independent person. And becoming independent is able to pay your rent.

MORRIS: Immigrants working, paying rent, paying taxes have turned Garden City and other meatpacking towns into islands of growth amid seas of rural decline. And Garden City by and large welcomes and appreciates its immigrants, as Carol Schieber found out when she was passing through from Guatemala 22 years ago.

CAROL SCHIEBER: It was so friendly and helpful that people would greet you at the stores and help you as much as they could everywhere you went.

MORRIS: Schieber liked the vibe here so much that she stayed. Garden City is now majority-Hispanic and extremely diverse, a town of 27,000 speaking at least 27 - some say 40 - languages and still finding fresh ways to welcome newcomers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVING TABLE)

MORRIS: Dr. John Birky is moving one of those big, medical-exam tables into a modest apartment with help from a couple of Somali men.

JOHN BIRKY: So this is actually going to be a waiting room right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah. The waiting room, yeah.

BIRKY: And then we'll come back here. And so this will be one exam room. You can see we put a sink in there.

MORRIS: Birky is setting up a nonprofit clinic handy for recent immigrants. But he's aware of a second, very serious menace to immigrants here.

BIRKY: Yeah. Do we want to publicize this beyond local community? Because we're always kind of asking ourselves, you know, what kind of bad actors are going to show up and cause issues?

MORRIS: 'Cause Garden City had a close brush with some alleged bad actors last fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Developing tonight, the FBI has foiled a terrorist bomb plot in Kansas.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: These three men are accused of planning to blow up an apartment complex in Garden City. That complex is home to a mosque.

AHMED HASSAN ALI: I've got a little bit flashback. I said, wow. What I was running from still is here. I never thought that, really.

MORRIS: Ahmed Hassan Ali, a Somali immigrant sporting a Kansas City Royals baseball cap, is standing outside the low-slung apartment complex targeted by the bomb plot.

ALI: There's a lot of families. Kids did nothing wrong. Away from, like, civil wars, problems back home - they were seeking to have a better life in the United States.

MORRIS: Three members of an anti-Islamic militia calling themselves the Crusaders allegedly prepared to set off bombs at this complex and then shoot any fleeing survivors.

ALI: But thanks to FBI, thanks to law enforcement, that didn't happen. That's how we have a good connection with the law enforcement in Garden City, especially Michael Utz, a great guy.

MICHAEL UTZ: I'm Michael Utz. I'm the chief of police here in Garden City.

MORRIS: When FBI agents told Utz about the bomb plot, he reached out himself to the Muslim community here.

UTZ: To me, it wasn't an attack on the Somalian population or the Burmese population. This was an attack on our community.

MORRIS: Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue agrees. And Bascue says there's a third problem vexing immigration here. Another Trump administration executive order could force local law enforcement to check the immigration status of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

KEVIN BASCUE: Well, I think that the threat to this community is the ending of what we've worked so hard over many, many years to happen here.

MORRIS: The relationship between the police and the town's valued immigrant population.

BASCUE: I think our community would be a dying community without the immigrants that have come in to fill in the gaps and to grow business.

MORRIS: Bascue says law enforcement here will continue to cooperate fully with federal immigration agents but with an eye toward preserving Garden City's winning formula, which starts with immigrants. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.