Unskilled Jobs Draw Migrants, Changing Face Of Small Towns Across America A meatpacking town in the Texas Panhandle is a magnet for immigrants who will do unpopular jobs. The once majority-white county has adjusted to its more diverse population.

Unskilled Jobs Draw Migrants, Changing Face Of Small Towns Across America

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/776087010/776173389" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than half a million migrant parents and children were taken into custody over the past year as a historic wave of families crossed the southern border. After being released to await their day in immigration court, many of these families head to places where unskilled jobs are plentiful, like at meat processors, dairies and farms. And when these migrants take these jobs, they change the demographics of the area.

NPR's John Burnett takes us to one place undergoing a transformation, a slaughterhouse town in the Texas panhandle.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It is the 8 o'clock assembly at Cactus Elementary School, located hard on the bleak plains of the Texas panhandle. Kiddos with colorful backpacks and sleepy eyes sit cross-legged on the gym floor while their principal kickstarts the day.

TJ FUNDERBERG: Good morning, Cactus Elementary.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: Good morning.

BURNETT: Many of these children come from poor villages in faraway lands - Guatemala, Somalia, Myanmar, Congo, Haiti - and they're clearly thrilled to be in school. Principal T.J. Funderberg welcomes them all.

FUNDERBERG: We wouldn't just need a United States map. We need a world map to map where everybody comes from, OK? But we're all here.

BURNETT: Over the past year, student enrollment at Cactus Elementary has surged from 300 to 400 kids. Many of their parents crossed the southern border and made their way to this hardscrabble town. Some have work permits, and some don't.

FUNDERBERG: What we found is the students that come in from Guatemala and even, like, Africa - they may have had some education. Like, in Guatemala, they don't start first grade until 8 or 9 years old. And so we've really kind of had to rethink the way that we do everything.

BURNETT: For instance, they need more English classes and fewer pop quizzes. The school also needs more room. Tomorrow voters will decide on a $107 million bond project for the whole school district. It includes a new elementary school for Cactus, in part to accommodate all the recent immigrant children. The bond package is expected to pass.

You might think locals would oppose a tax increase to educate migrant kids born thousands of miles away. After all, this is Donald Trump country. He won Moore County by 75%. The president wants fewer low-skilled immigrants like these. He says they take Americans' jobs and drive down wages. But Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric clashes with economic reality out here in the hardworking panhandle of Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY HUMMING)

BURNETT: That's the sound of the giant JBS Cactus Beef Plant. It's located across the highway from the elementary school, and most of the parents work there. The plant's workforce of 3,000-plus is overwhelmingly immigrant. Cactus even has its own mosque and halal meat market. On this night, a handful of current and former employees have come to the nearby Cactus Nazarene Ministry Center to prep for the U.S. citizenship exam.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No. 9 - George Washington was a general in the Vietnam War.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No. Which war?

BURNETT: Sylvia Hernandez, a lawful U.S. resident from Chihuahua, Mexico, has worked at JBS for 10 years now. She says it's the best paycheck around, and they earn it. Workers on the kill floor make 15 to $20 an hour, but the chain moves fast. A single cutter may process a hundred cow carcasses an hour.

SYLVIA HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) It's hard, and it's also dangerous. The kill floor is covered with blood, suet, fat, water.

BURNETT: The meat packer is popular with immigrants because of the pay scale, and it offers language classes, medical benefits and subsidized housing. And with a turnover rate of 70%, they're always hiring. In 2006, immigration agents raided the plant, then owned by Swift and Company, and arrested 300 unauthorized workers.

The plant, now owned by JBS, the Brazilian multinational meat processor, says it carefully vets applicants to ensure a legal workforce. JBS says in a statement, historically, first-generation Americans, asylees and refugees have viewed our jobs as unique opportunities to pursue the American dream. Again, Sylvia Hernandez.

HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) If I'm a U.S. citizen and I speak English, I'm not going to work there. I'll look for a better opportunity. It's the people who don't speak English who go to work at JBS.

BURNETT: Moore County used to be majority white. Today it's 80% non-white. Bill Knight runs the local Greyhound station and serves as the GOP chairman. While multiculturalism is good for the bus business, he says the fact that some foreign-born workers don't assimilate rubs some old-timers the wrong way.

BILL KNIGHT: The Anglo, let's say, feels like they're not welcome in those Spanish stores because they're accustomed to speaking to the Spanish in Spanish and not speaking us in English.

BURNETT: But Moore County judge Rowdy Rhoades says they've come a long way from the days when the county seat of Dumas was raw and racist.

ROWDY RHOADES: That was our culture. I know back in the '50s that, you know, they had a sign that said, blacks, don't let the sun set on you in Dumas, Texas.

BURNETT: The beef plant has been a magnet for immigrant workers for years, and Rhoades says folks have adapted to the diverse population that is now a permanent feature of Moore County. He compares learning tolerance to putting on weight.

RHOADES: You know what? It's kind of like getting fat. You don't get fat all at once. You put weight on a little bit of time, so you adjust, and you change your clothes. You go up a size or two or - you notice it, but you adapt.

BURNETT: After all, Judge Rhoades says, if you like rib-eyes and hamburgers, they've got to come from somewhere.

John Burnett, NPR News, Cactus, Texas.

Copyright © 2019 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 an NPR contractor. 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.