2004: S. Lynne Walker, Copley News Service
3/1/2004
ASNE Staff
Award for Diversity Writing
Monday, March 1, 2004
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Diversity writing


S. Lynne Walker

Articles

Beardstown / Reflection of a changing America

Tension in the air
November 9, 2003

Conquering the great divide
November 10, 2003

Living with a lie / Some immigrants sacrifice their identities to stay in America
November 11, 2003

Dealing with change
November 12, 2003

Article list

Beardstown / Reflection of a changing America: Tension in the air

November 9, 2003

For more than 200 years, the peoples of the world have been welcomed in America, a country built upon the backs of immigrants. In cities and in small towns, new waves of immigrants look to improve their lives and those of their families in the same land of hope, opportunity and prosperity sought by their forefathers.

Here in central Illinois, the Illinois River community of Beardstown is no longer an enclave of mostly white residents. It has become a reflection of America's continually changing face, an international community with a significant population of Hispanics - and a growing number of Africans - who have come to work for Excel Corp., the pork processing plant. A demographic change that is taking place across the country can be seen in microcosm in Beardstown.

Off and on for the past seven months, reporter S. Lynne Walker of the Mexico City bureau of Copley News Service lived in Beardstown. Walker's fluency in Spanish allowed her to understand a side of the immigrants' story not widely heard in central Illinois. The work of Walker and photographer Kristen Schmid Schurter offers an intimate look at the clash and commingling of distinctly different cultures.

Beginning today, we are pleased to present the first part of their four-day report examining one community's 15-year adventure in social change.

Barry Locher
Editor

Excel at a glance

Beardstown plant:

Opened: June 1987

Purchased from: Oscar Mayer

Employees: 2,000

Annual payroll: $50 million in wages and benefits

Average annual salary: $29,000

Average hourly wage: $10.70

Annual tax payment to city of Beardstown: $720,000

Production: 17,400 hogs slaughtered daily

Brand name products: Tender Choice, Sterling Silver

Corporate data:

Nationwide employment: 33,000

Corporate headquarters: Wichita, Kan.

Number of U.S. plants: 15

Number of foreign plants: Five, located in Canada and Australia

Parent company: Cargill Inc.

BEARDSTOWN - On winter afternoons, in the sliver of twilight dividing day from night, Mayor Bob Walters drove along his town's quiet streets troubled by the changes he feared were coming.

Beardstown was an all-white community of 5,200 people built by German immigrants. No one remembered an African-American ever setting down roots in this Illinois River town. When Mexican immigrants began flowing into the state, they, too, had bypassed Beardstown.

An intimacy had grown from that cultural isolation.

Bike-riding children waved to octogenarians resting in porch swings. People turned out for fish fries, baseball games and Fourth of July fireworks. Everybody knew everybody's name.

But in that winter of 1986, Walters could feel the comfortable rhythm of small-town life slipping away.

In just two years, three Beardstown employers had closed their doors, eliminating 500 jobs. Now, the town's biggest employer - the Oscar Mayer pork slaughterhouse - was shutting down, idling another 820 people. With no hope of finding work, families were beginning to leave.

Walters, who worked for 18 years as a ham boner at Oscar Mayer, had reservations about what many saw as the salvation of his dying town.

Excel Corp., the second-largest meatpacker in America, wanted to reopen the Oscar Mayer plant, and most of the town's residents were enthusiastic about the offer. They thought life would be the way it used to be, with an influx of money, thriving businesses and jobs for their children and grandchildren.

But during his travels as a representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), Walters had seen what happened when meatpackers, operating on profit margins of just 2 or 3 percent, opened plants in the rural Midwest.

Yes, they hired local folks. But they also recruited a stream of immigrants, most of them Mexican, to feed their insatiable demand for strong, young workers.

What Walters had seen on his trips across the Midwest was already starting to attract the attention of the nation's top demographers. By the late 1980s, they were recording the transformation that occurred when the meatpacking industry moved into small American towns.

People from different cultures who spoke different languages were crowding into communities where white, English-speaking Americans had lived for generations.

The new arrivals brought new music, new foods and new holidays. They also brought new social problems.

They weren't creating towns, as earlier waves of Europeans had done, but moving into tight-knit communities. Sometimes, the towns lost their identities and people from neighboring communities poked fun at them, calling them "Little Mexico."

Walters didn't know these new immigrants as people, but he knew their presence was changing a way of life in America's heartland.

He knew his own town, too. In 1858, the people of Beardstown had gathered in the town square to hear Abraham Lincoln deliver a stump speech opposing slavery. But a century later, they had hung a noose in that same park, warning blacks to stay away.

"It had been an all-white, redneck community for 160 years," Walters said, "For a community like that to have a different ethnic group come in, well, it's hard to adjust."

On a sweltering June afternoon in 1987, Excel quietly opened the company's first pork-processing plant in Beardstown. With no fanfare, the town took its place in the dramatic demographic change sweeping America.

By the year 2000, Beardstown's Hispanic population would grow 3,229 percent.

Illinois welcomed Excel because economically depressed Cass County, home to Beardstown, was one of the poorest in the state.

Gov. Jim Thompson signed special legislation waiving the requirement that Excel's parent company, privately held grain giant Cargill Inc., open its financial records before being allowed to locate in a free-enterprise zone at the outskirts of town. Excel received all the economic benefits Illinois had to offer, including state funds for job training.

But Beardstown already had a labor force trained in the meatpacking business. With downstate Illinois facing rising unemployment, Excel dropped the starting wage from $8.75 to $6.50 an hour.

At one of his first meetings with Excel officials, Walters pushed the company to hire former Oscar Mayer workers.

"I wanted Americans to hold the jobs," he said. "There were a lot of local people looking for work. I wanted to give them the opportunity first."

Excel finally agreed to hire 250 Oscar Mayer workers. Another 100 employees came from nearby towns.

Every day, more than 5,000 hogs were chopped into pieces and boxed for shipment. The plant's work force put bacon on America's breakfast table, sent pig tails to canners for pork 'n' beans and shipped snouts to Alabama for pickling.

The money that Excel's workers earned flowed back into Beardstown's economy. Hardee's and McDonald's opened hamburger franchises to compete with the town's old-fashioned coffee shops serving biscuits and gravy. In 1989, Sam Walton Jr. phoned Walters from his private plane to say he'd be landing at Beardstown's tiny airport to look at a site for the town's first Wal-Mart.

The visit was so sudden, "we didn't even have time to get out the marching band," Walters said. Still, "they said they liked what they'd seen, that they liked our town."

Walters took great pride in pointing out that in Excel's early years, no Hispanics moved to Beardstown.

Although the 1990 census recorded 31 Hispanics, Walters insisted, "There were no Hispanics here. I'd like to think I had a lot to do with that."

He wasn't motivated by racism, Walters said, but his years of experience in the meatpacking industry.

"They take Hispanics, blacks and the downtrodden to work in their plants - those who don't have the computer skills or the basics for today's work environment," he said. "They seem to prey on that type of people. They take advantage of the disadvantaged."

As he left office in 1990, Walters gave his successor some advice.

"I told him, 'If you don't stay after Excel, you are going to have a lot of Hispanics and a lot of Asians come in here and take those jobs.'

"That's exactly what happened," he said.

***

The first Hispanics who showed up at Excel didn't last long.

When Excel hired Brad Hunter, a former Oscar Mayer worker, in 1989, "there was very few coloreds and very few Mexicans," he recalled. "Every time we'd try to tell them to do something, they'd look at us stupid. So we'd start harassing them and they'd quit."

But two things changed the equation: Excel stepped up its production, increasing the need for workers. And worker compensation costs began to soar, with injury claims reaching $7.8 million a year by 1994, according to UFCW representative Duke Walters, who is the mayor's brother.

In the dangerous meatpacking industry, accidents were inevitable. Workers carved up a 265-pound hog every 4.5 seconds, and in the process cut themselves with knives, hurt their backs and suffered from repetitive stress injury, Walters said.

Excel's most serious accident came in 1990, when workers inhaled ammonia gas that leaked from a cooler where slaughtered hogs were kept, according to Occupational Safety & Health Administration records. Seventeen workers inhaled the toxic fumes; seven had to be hospitalized.

When Walters sat down at the bargaining table with Excel in 1994, the company made it clear that "if they continued to have those costs ... we were probably looking at closure."

Employee turnover was also a problem, reportedly hitting 100 percent a year by the mid-1990s. The company's slaughterhouse was strategically located near farms in Illinois' sparsely populated countryside that produced the hogs Excel slaughtered. But there weren't enough workers living nearby, so when Excel increased production, the company had to import its labor.

Every week, Excel officials interviewed job candidates, but "they weren't able to get enough people in the job pool here," said Walters. "In order to build the factory and get the people they needed, they had to go outside the area."

So Excel began to look for workers from south of the border who acknowledged they didn't gripe about every ache and pain.

"After starving to death, after sneaking across the border, people are prepared to do anything. There is no pain," said a Hispanic man working in Beardstown. "If I came into the United States under a pile of avocados, what right do I have to complain?''

Excel confirmed in a written statement that "we have done mobile recruiting in areas of high unemployment where people were looking for work opportunities. This included northern states as well as southern and western."

The company, which refused repeated requests over the past seven months for a face-to-face interview with a representative, sent recruiters to California, Arizona and the Texas border towns of Laredo, Eagle Pass, Brownsville and El Paso, drawing job candidates with spots on Spanish-language radio.

Excel sent nurse Lisa Mincy to the Texas-Mexico border at least 10 times during the eight years she worked at the plant. Sometimes, Mincy administered drug tests and gave physicals to 35 job seekers a day during the two- to four-day trips.

"One guy rode his bike 12 miles to get to me," said Mincy, who left Excel last year. "It was hot. It was like 110 degrees that day."

Those who passed Excel's physical exam got a $400 advance and a one-way bus ticket to Beardstown.

***

Nobody can remember when the first Mexican families moved into Beardstown. Suddenly, they were just there.

The Rev. Eugene Weitzel recalls looking out at his congregation at St. Alexius Catholic Church in 1995 and seeing a handful of Mexicans in the pews. Soon, they were knocking at his door, asking for a Spanish-speaking priest.

Buffy Tillitt-Pratt, a longtime real estate agent and a member of the famous Beardstown Ladies Investment Club, can still recall the first time a Mexican family stopped by to ask if she might have a place for rent.

"It is against the law to discriminate. Some of the people in Beardstown probably did not realize that at first," said Tillitt-Pratt, who rented them a three-bedroom house she owned.

Principal Pam DeSollar remembers a Mexican mother and father walking into her kindergarten office and using hand signals to enroll their 6-year-old son.

"How were we going to talk to this family? How were we going to fill out the forms?" DeSollar said she wondered at the time. "We couldn't communicate."

DeSollar's concern was echoed throughout the town. For the first time in their lives, Beardstown residents weren't able to talk with their neighbors.

They didn't understand anything the Mexicans said or did. And the Mexican families didn't understand the stuffy, small-town rules that now dictated their lives.

Police officers showed up at Mexican homes because American neighbors complained the mariachi music was too loud. City officials arrived to caution Mexicans that their lawn had grown taller than Beardstown's 8-inch limit. Police were constantly ticketing Hispanics for driving without insurance and driver's licenses.

"We didn't know the laws," said Antonio Carrillo, 36, a father of three who works at Excel. "That was part of the problem."

The police department was unprepared for the arrival of Spanish-speaking residents. None of the officers was bilingual. During routine traffic stops, police officer Jacob Swan pulled out his own license to show the new residents which ID he wanted to see.

The town's schools were also caught off guard. In 1993, the district had just one Spanish-speaking student. By 1996, it had several dozen.

Immigration agents showed up at the Excel plant in 1995 and pulled 60 workers off the production line for questioning.

"Everybody who wasn't Caucasian, they called into the office," said Sergio Ruiz, 36, who is now a chief steward for the UFCW, Local 431. "They asked you questions and they said, 'Leave. Stay. Leave. Stay.'"

Despite the scare, Excel's Hispanic work force continued to grow.

Ruiz brought 26 Hispanics to work with him at Excel in July 1993. At the time, there were only about 15 Hispanics working at the plant, he said. Excel also paid its employees to help with the recruiting, handing out $150 for each new worker.

When the number of Hispanics reached nearly 500, businesses began to cater to the new residents' tastes.

Su Casa, a Mexican-owned grocery store, opened near Beardstown's historic town square and offered tortillas, chilies and nopal cactus. A bar, El Flamingo, was opened by an American woman and her Mexican husband.

But as the Hispanics' presence became more obvious, ambivalence by some longtime Beardstown residents turned to resentment.

Martha Martinez, 29, was denied her right to register to vote at the same time she applied for a driver's license, which she was entitled to under Illinois' "motor-voter" law. She asked why and was told, "it was because I was a naturalized citizen, not a citizen citizen."

Martinez's family was also the target of hate crimes.

"They threw flaming rags at the house," said her husband, 35-year-old Alejandro. "They punctured our tires. They said we came to take their jobs."

***

On Aug. 10, 1996, Beardstown was rocked by its first murder in seven years.

Jorge Arambula, a 28-year-old Mexican who worked at Excel, was accused of fatally shooting Beardstown resident Travis Brewer, 22, at El Flamingo. Brewer was a friend of another Beardstown man, whose ex-wife was living with Arambula.

The next night, a 6-foot-high makeshift cross was doused with diesel fuel and set ablaze in front of the bar.

Arambula was detained five days later at his home in Monterrey, Mexico. But Mexican law enforcement authorities refused to extradite him to Illinois. He has never been tried for the murder in Mexico, and the case remains open at the Beardstown Police Department.

The decision infuriated Beardstown residents. On Aug. 16, 1996, El Flamingo was gutted by fire, and anonymous callers warned the owner of Su Casa his business would be next. He stripped his shelves and closed the store.

Police soon arrested a 28-year-old resident of nearby Rushville, but Illinois state police patrolled the town for weeks.

When rumors circulated that the Ku Klux Klan was headed to Beardstown, the Mexican community braced for the arrival with its own whispered threat.

"For every one of us they kill," one Mexican resident remembers people saying, "we're going to kill five of them."


Article list

Beardstown / Reflection of a changing America: Conquering the great divide

November 10, 2003

BEARDSTOWN - Shaken residents of Beardstown flocked to church services on Aug. 18, 1996, as bells pealed for unity and ministers exhorted their congregations to overcome "the darkness of hate."

But when people heard those words, they knew the sheltered lives they once enjoyed had slipped from their grasp.

Eight days earlier, a Mexican immigrant had murdered a Beardstown man. The incident had been followed by a cross-burning and arson. In the aftermath of the violence, lifelong residents were torn between fear and uncertainty.

Beardstown's residents had been shaped by where they lived, where they went to school, the things they had in common. Now, like the residents of many small towns across the United States, they were seeing their community reshaped by immigrants who'd made their way north from Mexico.

By 1996, the meatpacking industry had opened plants in almost 150 Midwestern towns. Other industries were also beginning to draw Hispanics to communities throughout small-town America. In Dalton, Ga., Hispanics manufactured carpet. In Kennett Square, Pa., they harvested year-round mushroom crops. In Rogers, Ark., they cut and boxed poultry.

With each passing month, more Hispanics were recruited to Beardstown for jobs at Excel Corp.'s pork slaughterhouse. The new arrivals brought lifestyles and attitudes that made Americans feel uneasy.

They saw Mexican flags popping up all over town and heard Spanish spoken in the aisles of the Wal-Mart store. Hispanic children rode their bikes past the town square where a plaque cited Abraham Lincoln's famous anti-segregation speech, "A house divided cannot stand."

Hispanics also worried about the town's future. They had moved here after dangerous trips across the border or from jobs in big cities where they'd lived in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Many felt that in Beardstown, they'd found not just a job, but a place in the United States they could call home.

They weren't herded into ghettos, as they had been in other meatpacking towns. Some bought houses on the town's tree-lined streets and were looking forward to raising their children. They appreciated the low crime rate and the city services that were provided without the "gratuities" they were used to paying in Mexico.

The good things about Beardstown reminded Marisela Chavez of her hometown in the Pacific Coast state of Michoacan.

Her Beardstown neighbors sent greeting cards to Chavez's two daughters on their birthdays, at Easter and Christmas. Chavez smiled as she remembered the moment her daughters opened the Christmas cards and found $20 bills tucked inside.

"I think the people in Beardstown are like we are in our pueblo. They all know each other. They know where everybody works, who their children are," said Chavez, 38, who moved to Beardstown in 1995 and works with the school system's bilingual program.

Like other Hispanics, Chavez believed a mix of Anglos and Hispanics made Beardstown a stronger community.

When the town's 11 churches called a meeting after the arson, 60 people showed up to discuss their concerns about the growing tension.

By the end of the meeting, Anglos and Hispanics had formed an alliance called Beardstown United. Plans were made to enter a float in the town's Fall Fun Festival, and a block party was planned for October.

Beardstown United noted that the racial divide touched every facet of the residents' lives.

Although the town had been built by immigrants in the early 1880s and had been home to people of foreign ancestry ever since, "this new wave was different," said Loraine Brasel, who was a member of Beardstown United.

"They came right from Mexico with no established support group here. They didn't speak English. So they formed their own cohesive group," she said. "It was like having a little country dropped right in the middle of Beardstown."

There were concerns about whether the schools were teaching Hispanic children to assimilate into American life. People were also beginning to complain about the new Spanish-language Masses being offered at St. Alexius Catholic Church.

In 1996, Beardstown wasn't a community, but two separate groups of people: Anglos and Hispanics.

***

At St. Alexius Catholic Church, the Rev. Eugene Weitzel heard the hushed complaints.

People were uncomfortable with his staunch defense of Beardstown's Hispanic residents and his decision to offer separate Spanish-language Masses.

It had been almost a year since four Hispanics knocked at his door and asked him to offer a Mass in Spanish. Weitzel, a 76-year-old Springfield native who didn't speak Spanish, readily accepted their proposal.

At first, most of his Spanish-speaking parishioners were men who'd left their families in Mexico when they came to Beardstown for work. But as Beardstown's Hispanic population grew with the arrival of women and children, so did attendance at Spanish-language Masses.

From the beginning, there was "tension between the two groups," Weitzel said. "This is a redneck town. They are slow to accept outsiders. Whenever we have people who are different, we seem to have a fear of them."

Weitzel said opposition was so strong that four or five families eventually left the parish.

"There are people here in my own parish who would be happy as a lark if they'd just leave town," Weitzel said. "One of the men came up to me and said, 'If they can't speak the language, then get the hell out.' Well, come on. His folks came over from Germany and they didn't speak the language."

Weitzel's outspoken remarks became a lightning rod for criticism about Hispanic residents.

"Father Weitzel has been the worst thing for Mexicans, because he tried to push the Mexicans on Americans instead of letting people try to live together," said Eugene Gyure, a 64-year-old retiree who attends St. Alexius.

Many in Beardstown insisted they didn't feel animosity toward Hispanic churchgoers.

"People at the church don't like the separatism. They want to be one parish," said Jackie Tanner, 47, who moved to Beardstown in 1998. "They don't like two services. They don't like two youth groups. Resentment. That's what you have when you separate a lot."

Edmundo Bernal, a 35-year-old Excel worker who had attended bilingual Masses in Chicago, was dismayed by the separation. "We share the same religion. The only difference is that we have a different language," he said.

***

The racial divide was also clear in the schools. In a town where friendships were formed in kindergarten, it was hard for youngsters who didn't speak English to squeeze into the closed circle.

Victor Sanchez remembers feeling alone and alienated in 1998 as he walked down halls filled with Anglo students.

"I was, like, shocked because I hadn't seen so many white people in one place," he said. "I felt strange. It's hard to get along with people when you don't talk the same language."

Victor and his family came to Beardstown from the central Mexico state of Hidalgo. The 13-year-old Victor was placed in seventh-grade English as a second language, or ESL, classes, where most of Beardstown's 153 Hispanic children - about 12 percent of the district's student body - were enrolled.

Victor picked up English quickly. In three months, he learned enough to help his mother, who worked at Excel, adjust to life in Beardstown.

"If you don't learn English fast, you get stuck," he said.

But as his language skills improved, he began to understand the comments Anglo students were making about their Hispanic classmates.

"Beaners. Wetbacks. Go back to Mexico," Victor remembered some kids saying.

"They think they are better than us," he said. "They think when the Latinos are coming here, they are going to steal their work. But the companies prefer Latinos, you know? Because we can work more. Because we need more."

Georgeanne Osmer, who teaches family and consumer science at Beardstown High School and helps coach the girls' softball team, watched her students segregate themselves.

"If I have four tables in my food class - four kitchens - I can guarantee that all the Hispanics will be at one table," she said. "There's not animosity, but there's not a cohesiveness, a togetherness."

Tomas Alvarez was thrust into this divided world when he arrived in July 1998 at the age of 12. His father had been called from Guadalajara to a lead growing Spanish-speaking congregation at the Church of the Nazarene.

Tomas didn't speak English, so he was sent to ESL classes with Victor.

But after his first year, Tomas said, "It was obvious I wasn't learning much. I learned more from my friends than from the ESL teacher."

Tomas' teachers recommended that he be moved to English-speaking classes, and in eighth grade he became an A student. Tomas, who plays football and has helped the school district update its Web site, will be going to college after he graduates in May.

He's certain that if he'd stayed in ESL classes, he would have faced the same future as several of his classmates. "I know some real smart people who stayed in ESL," said Tomas. "They're out at Excel now."

***

For Hispanic parents who worked Excel's grueling jobs in extreme heat and cold, amid blood and fetid smells, Beardstown's schools offered their children a way out of a life of manual labor.

Like the immigrants who came to America before them, Hispanic mothers and fathers wanted their children to become professionals. For them, having children who ended up cutting meat at Excel represented their own failure.

But the school system wasn't prepared for students like Elvia Montoya, the first Hispanic student to graduate from Beardstown High's ESL program.

When Montoya arrived in Beardstown, she didn't speak English, so an interpreter accompanied her to most of her classes.

Her goal was to get her master's degree and become a Spanish teacher. But after she graduated in 1998, her English skills were so poor that she couldn't even get into the local community college.

"Sometimes, I blame myself for not learning more, or I don't know if it was their fault because the program was just beginning," said Montoya, 24, who works as an interpreter at a Hispanic community outreach center in Beardstown. "I didn't come out of high school with good English; I came out with enough English to survive."

Kathy Haut, one of Montoya's ESL teachers and now coordinator of the bilingual program, said the arrival of Hispanic students "put a huge burden on the school system."

One 15-year-old Mexican boy who had been selling flowers on the streets of Tijuana arrived with a second-grade education. Another teenager came from the Mexican countryside, where he had been working his family's fields with oxen and a plow. When teachers asked him to use a computer to do his schoolwork, Haut said, he couldn't figure out how to switch it on.

"How are you going to have quality teachers for all those children? You're not," Haut said. "You're just doing the best you can. Parents don't understand that we can't just go out and pick up bilingual teachers. They can do it Chicago. They can do it in San Francisco. But who wants to come here?"

She's frustrated because she hasn't been able to solve the problems of bilingual education.

"As glad as I am that these people are here, they have to understand how hard it is to go from a school system that's 150 years old and all Anglo to suddenly having a bilingual program," Haut said. "If they think this school is going to be a Mexican school, no, it's not. It's going to be an Anglo institution."

Hispanic parents said Haut's staff pressured them to keep their children separate from Anglo students. They were warned that moving their children from ESL to regular classes would be tantamount to robbing them of their culture.

Haut blamed Hispanic parents for not getting involved in their children's education and suggested they might not understand educators' reasons for keeping their children in ESL classes.

For Hispanic parents, "it's a status symbol to be able to speak English," she said. "It's the language of power. It's like distancing themselves from their past."

Dora Sanchez ran into the ESL problem when a bilingual teacher said her daughter, Arely Madrid, should go into regular fifth-grade classes.

Sanchez persisted even after a different staffer from the bilingual program visited her at home and said Arely would be more immersed in her culture and her Spanish would be better if she stayed in ESL.

On the first day of school, however, Sanchez was shocked to discover that Arely was back in ESL. Weeks passed before the dispute was settled and Arely was moved to English-speaking classes.

Although Arely started later than the other students, her grades were exemplary. This year, she'll be on the honor roll.

"Give me a whole room of Arelys," said her sixth-grade teacher, Susan DeWitt. "She's an outstanding student."

Sanchez was convinced she had made the right decision.

"Of course it is important that they learn their culture and their Spanish. What parent doesn't want their child to be prepared? That is why we are here," Sanchez said. "But if the bilingual program doesn't have the same quality as the English classes, we don't want them to go."

***

Anglo and Hispanic children in Beardstown's two kindergartens offered hope the town would be united in the future.

From the moment the first Hispanic child was enrolled in 1993, principal Pam DeSollar threw herself into the task of educating Beardstown's youngest residents.

At that age, the children were color-blind about their fellow classmates and eager to soak up a new language.

"We had to change the way we worked. We had to fight right to the state level to get the resources we think we're entitled to," said DeSollar, principal of Grand and Washington kindergartens. "We've been challenged. But am I sorry about that? No."

DeSollar, 60, who grew up in California's San Fernando Valley, moved to Beardstown after she married her husband, who is from an established local family. When she arrived in 1965, she found a backwater town that seemed disconnected from the rest of the world. The local grocery store didn't stock the ingredients she needed to fix her favorite meals, so she ordered her refried beans and canned chilies by the case.

DeSollar saw the arrival of Hispanic families in small-town America as a natural progression of the wave of immigration that had started in California and other border states. "If Excel stays here, we will continue to see this growth," DeSollar said. "What I hope is that we don't become two communities. Our country is bilingual. And it's only going to become more bilingual in the future."

By the late 1990s, everybody in town seemed to understand the Hispanics were here to stay. The challenge facing Beardstown was to find a way for Anglos and Hispanics to grow together instead of growing apart.


Article list

Beardstown / Reflection of a changing America: Living with a lie / Some immigrants sacrifice their identities to stay in America

 

November 11, 2003

BEARDSTOWN - As Beardstown residents struggled to find common ground with their new neighbors, one issue kept them apart: Many of the Hispanics working at Excel Corp.'s slaughterhouse were living illegally in the United States.

By 1998, Excel's work force had grown to nearly 2,000 employees, about 30 percent of them Hispanic. Although the company denied it knowingly hired undocumented workers, it was an open secret that most of the Hispanics - perhaps as many as 80 percent - had purchased false IDs to get their jobs.

To protect themselves, the undocumented residents avoided the rest of the townspeople. They were wary of settling into small-town life, of going to ball games or being active in the PTA.

The Rev. Tomas Alvarez had been in town only a couple of months when he realized he would be ministering to people who had to lie about everything - even their own names - in order to be hired at Excel.

"It was very difficult for me to accept in the beginning," said Alvarez, who arrived in 1998 to lead the Spanish-speaking congregation at the Church of the Nazarene. "I cried a lot because I knew I was lying along with them. I began to talk with God. I said, 'God, they left their country to work as undocumented people. It is not my responsibility to judge. You must judge them. Let me help them.'"

The dual identities filled school records, health records, police records and voter registration lists with inaccuracies.

Excel employees working with false identities didn't want to use their real names - or their children's real names - on official documents. School officials repeatedly assured parents their records wouldn't be turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS (now called the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

"We are not the INS. We do not plan to be the INS," said School Superintendent Jim Lewis. "Our mission is not to turn people in, but to help the families."

Pregnant mothers were urged to give their real names when they arrived at hospitals to deliver their babies. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to prove they were the children's real mothers.

At the Cass County clerk's office, irregularities cropped up on voter registration lists. A single Social Security number was sometimes used by as many as four registered "voters."

Few voted, however. In Beardstown's April 2001 mayoral election, fewer than 20 of the town's 120 registered Hispanics cast ballots. Instead, they saw the voter registration card as another form of identification.

"They figure if they get the voter ID, it gives them some credibility in being here," said Cass County Clerk Michael Kirchner.

Beardstown's police also ran into dual-name problems. When they stopped Hispanics for traffic violations, some had several IDs with different names in their wallets. A few were mistakenly arrested because charges were filed against the people whose documents they had bought.

Like most of Beardstown's legal residents, Alvarez worked out his own way of dealing with the shadow world inhabited by many of the town's Hispanic residents.

"I went to the (former) chief of police and told him people have different names. He said, 'If I were in their shoes, I would probably do the same thing.'

"I went to Excel and they told me, 'Pastor, we don't want to know anything. We are contracting American citizens.'"

Based on those conversations, Alvarez decided he would minister to the undocumented immigrants the same way he ministered to any other Beardstown resident. He wouldn't help them do anything illegal. But if their only crime was working without documents, he wouldn't report them to authorities.

***

Beardstown had become a town built partly on lies. There were lies that religious leaders had been forced to accept, lies that schoolteachers had to overlook and that police officials chose to ignore.

For Hispanic workers and their families, the lies created personal conflicts.

"We've made liars out of them. We've made cheats out of them," said the Rev. Eugene Weitzel, who presides over the St. Alexius Catholic Parish. "They've got to have two names. That's a lie. They carry papers that have another name on them. That's a lie.

"One of the reasons they don't come together more with the community is that they're embarrassed. They have a sense of insecurity."

Life in this small, quiet town had brought prosperity to Beardstown's immigrants. But their prosperity was built on lies as well. Their spending could continue only if immigration agents didn't show up in the town.

The new arrivals bought cars, big-screen TVs and satellite dishes that brought Mexican news programs, soap operas and soccer games into their living rooms. They bought homes with huge down payments and paid them off with five-year loans.

They delighted in knowing that when they went shopping, they had money in their pockets to buy almost anything they wanted. And they still had money left over to send to their families in Mexico.

"Economically, you live like a king here," said Alejandro Martinez, 35, who moved to Beardstown in 1994. "I have an account at the bank. I bought a car. We eat shrimp twice a week. We go to the store and if we spend $200 or $500, so what?"

Martinez and his wife used their Excel paychecks to buy a home and six rental properties.

"In Mexico, for people at our level, we would live like donkeys," Martinez said. "Here, everything that I have wanted, I have bought."

But Martinez is a legal resident of the United States and his wife is a naturalized American citizen.

Other Hispanics, working at Excel without legitimate documents, could never let their guard down. Fearful of being deported, they spent most of their off-work hours at home.

"I feel trapped," sighed a 49-year-old woman who left Acapulco in 1999 and crossed the border illegally.

"Every day I'm here, here, here," she said, sweeping her arm in the direction of the two-story home she and her husband bought. "We almost never go out. I feel very lonely."

As she remembered her home in Mexico's famous beach resort, she sighed again.

"Right now, our mango tree would be full of fruit. I miss the coconuts, the breeze from the sea," she said. "I tell my husband, 'Let's go back.' But he doesn't want to go back. My husband is happy here."

Her 49-year-old husband is now an American citizen. He's one of the lucky ones.

"Many of the people at Excel work with bought papers," she said. "It's easy to see who has papers and who doesn't. Those who don't have (legal) papers are afraid to speak."

Longtime resident Patricia Gyure sensed the Hispanic residents' reluctance to draw attention to themselves.

"They come here, they do their jobs, they're low-key. They don't bother anyone. They don't cause any problems," said Gyure, 60, who works at a nursing home. "They just blend in."

But her husband ticked off a litany of complaints.

The Hispanics didn't speak English. They celebrated their own Independence Day. And he believed they didn't pay their fair share of taxes.

"We're saying if you're going to be living in America, you're going to celebrate American Independence Day," said 64-year-old Eugene Gyure, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the American flag and the words, "These colors never run."

Gyure also didn't like being called Anglo.

"We are not Anglos," he said. "We are Americans."

Few Beardstown residents believed racism was at the heart of their feelings.

"I don't think there's any prejudice around here. I think it's resentment. A lot, lot of resentment. A lot of people feel that the immigrants are protected by our own laws more than we are," said a 53-year-old Beardstown native who asked not to be named.

"My husband wants to move. I say, 'But this is our home.' If I really left, I'd feel like they'd driven me out. And I want to go on my own.

"It's so unfair. The schools protect them. Public aid has holes in it. Excel protects them. I have a lot of resentment," she said. "I'm dealing with it, because it's wearing me out. It tires you when you're upset."

***

Excel has been silent about many of the issues surrounding its Beardstown operation. Repeated requests made over a seven-month period for a face-to-face interview with company officials were denied.

However, Excel said in a written response that "We make every effort to validate employment eligibility while protecting against discrimination. Despite what some might speculate (based on no facts), we are very good at verifying employment eligibility."

Alvarez agreed that Excel has gotten tougher in recent years

"Before, people without documents got into the plant easier," he said. "Now, the plant is verifying all kinds of documents, including the work history of the job candidate."

Alvarez's 24-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Burnside, was an interpreter in Excel's human relations department. It was her job to contact the Social Security Administration's Springfield office every week to check the numbers new employees had given.

"I'm the mean one," she said with an apologetic smile before she left the company. "I'm the one who has to tell them that their Social Security number doesn't match."

But many of the numbers are valid, because some Hispanic workers buy legitimate birth certificates and Social Security numbers from Americans - prisoners, U.S. soldiers stationed abroad or wanted criminals - who sell their identities through middlemen for as much as $1,500.

One Hispanic woman told police she bought her documents from a man going door-to-door in Beardstown. Her husband told police he also bought identity documents, first to get an Illinois driver's license, then to apply for a job at Excel or at the company that contracts workers to clean blood and bones from the slaughterhouse machinery.

Excel's responsibility is to fill out a government-required I-9 form stating that job candidates have presented at least two documents - such as a driver's license and Social Security card - that prove they are eligible for work.

Employers are not required to verify Social Security numbers, nor are they responsible for investigating whether the person presenting documents bought them on the black market, said Cynthia O'Connell, interim chief of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement's identity and benefits fraud unit.

"We cannot expect them to be immigration officers," she said.

A Mexican woman said after she bought documents in 1999, she traced the original owner's signature over and over again, until she could produce an exact match of the six-letter name.

Now she signs easily. When someone calls her by the other woman's name, she instinctively turns and responds.

But it troubles her to deny who she is.

"I would like to have my papers," she said, "and present myself as I am."

***

The Hispanics who adapted most easily to life in Beardstown were people like Edmundo Bernal, who took advantage of a 1986 immigration law granting farm workers legal status in the United States.

Bernal tells his story like an adventure tale.

He struck out for the border in 1987, and 10 times he was detained by immigration agents in San Diego. Ten times, he crossed again. That year, he said, nearly 1,000 men from his town of Villa Guerrero headed for the United States.

When Bernal finally got across the border, he rode the trolley to downtown San Diego, caught a train to Anaheim and slept in a park for two weeks. He picked asparagus in Stockton, then harvested beets in Idaho. There, he ran into a Mexican man from a town near his, who offered him a ride to Chicago.

Bernal's timing changed his life, because like 1.2 million Hispanic farm workers, he was savvy enough to take advantage of the legalization program before it expired in 1988.

"A lot of people missed the opportunity. Now, they're sorry," said the 35-year-old Bernal. "After I got my documents, I began to live well."

He married his wife, Alicia, in their pueblo in 1990 and sneaked his bride across the border at Tijuana the next day.

Because he was documented, Alicia also became eligible for legal work papers, which she received in 1996. Their two sons, Jaime and Edmundo Jr. - also known as Jimmy and Eddie Jr. - were born in the United States, so they are American citizens.

In 1998, Bernal also became a citizen and moved his family from Chicago to Beardstown in search of affordable housing, a low crime rate and good wages.

Bernal immediately went to work for Excel. Alicia soon followed, getting a job cutting off pig's feet.

They bought a $53,000 house and just two years later, they only owed $18,000. They refinanced and used the money to open a tavern called Salon Azul. They also bought sound equipment that Bernal rented out under the name "Si Se Puede," a Spanish phrase meaning, "Yes, it can be done."

Like many Hispanics in Beardstown, Bernal had a dual identity. But in his case, it came from being bilingual and bicultural, not from living in the shadows.

"On that side of the river," he said, pointing to Mexico, "they call me Edmundo. On this side of the river, everybody just calls me Eddie."

As owner of Salon Azul, Eddie Bernal became one of the most visible Hispanics in town. He smiled and waved at everybody. He shouted greetings in English.

He had found the formula for getting along.

"You don't have to have a big conversation. But you can say, 'Hello,' and shake their hand," he said. "When you have good intentions, you don't have to talk too much."

Bernal's sons have already put down roots beside the Illinois River.

Nine-year-old Eddie Jr., a charismatic boy with bristly black hair, wants to become a police officer.

Twelve-year-old Jimmy, a robust kid with a penchant for Matchbox cars, has a more immediate goal.

"I'm going to be as tall as Abe Lincoln," he said.


Article list

Beardstown / Reflection of a changing America: Dealing with change

November 12, 2003

BEARDSTOWN - By autumn of 2003, Beardstown had once again settled into a comfortable rhythm. But the rhythm was different than before.

 

Beardstown was no longer a community of white faces, where people spoke only English and bragged about banning minorities. Instead, it was part of the new American Midwest, where brown faces and Spanish are woven into daily life.

In almost every U.S. county, the 2000 census showed the rise in Hispanics outstripping overall population growth. From Nantucket Island, Mass., to the rural Mississippi Delta, small communities were being changed by Hispanics settling in their towns. In Garden City, Kan., Hispanics now make up 44 percent of the population. In Conesville City, Iowa, they're the majority.

In the 16 years since Excel Corp. opened a pork slaughterhouse at the outskirts of Beardstown, the Hispanic population has reached 30 percent. With Excel hinting at increasing production and some longtime residents of this town of 7,000 moving out, many people believe Hispanics will become the majority here, too.

That bothers some of the town's Anglo residents, although their resentment has softened over the years. There is still racial prejudice. But it is muted by an acceptance, even an appreciation by many people, of the new ideas that cultural diversity has brought.

Bob Walters sensed the difference in the fall of 2000 when he knocked on the doors of each of the town's 1,799 residences during his campaign for another term as mayor. Walters had left Beardstown for a better job in 1991 after serving as mayor for five years. But the call of home - parents, brothers, a sister and kids - brought him back to Beardstown.

In his door-to-door campaign, he heard citizens complain about things that bother people everywhere - problems in the police department, unsightly garbage and the city's mismanaged budget.

Only a few griped about the growing number of Hispanics, but Walters stopped them short.

"The biggest problem with Beardstown people is that they think this is only happening in Beardstown," said Walters, who won the election with 60 percent of the vote. "They haven't got out and checked the real world yet. These people are all over the U.S. The facts are that it's the fastest-growing population in the United States."

One thing people didn't complain about was how the economy had rebounded since the Hispanics' arrival.

Per capita income in Cass County, home to Beardstown, shot up 70.5 percent between 1988 - the year after Excel opened its plant - and 1997. Two-income couples employed at Excel now earn about $50,000 a year, a handsome sum in a town where monthly mortgage payments are as low as $400.

Beardstown's sales tax revenues are growing about 3 percent a year, with Excel a major contributor to the town's economic well-being.

The crime rate remains low. Beardstown's last murder was in 1996, when a Mexican immigrant was accused of shooting an Anglo resident at a local bar. Drug cases increased 93 percent between 2001 and 2002, but even then the number of arrests was only 56.

Beardstown has become the town of the future, demographers say, an economic model for hundreds of small American towns that are slowly dying.

Hispanics have given the town what real estate agent Buffy Tillitt-Pratt calls a "youth boost." The 80-year-old high school is so crowded that it's being replaced with a $20 million junior high and high school. At the beginning of this school year, one-third of the district's 1,400 students were Hispanic.

School Superintendent Jim Lewis foresees the day when his job will be held by a bilingual superintendent. "You need to hear those voices without relying on an interpreter to tell you what those voices are saying."

Clearly, the town has changed. And so has Walters, a Purple Heart veteran of the Vietnam War who admits he grew up a redneck in a sheltered world made up of people just like him. In Vietnam, his fellow soldiers hooted with laughter when he finally worked up the nerve to ask, "What the hell is a soul brother?"

"That shows you how naive you are when you come from a small, all-white area," the 58-year-old mayor said as he held a dying cigarette between his fingers.

The town, like Walters, has experienced an awakening.

People don't stare at Hispanics, like they did when the Excel workers first got here. Most Anglos choose their words carefully. Many preface any negative comments with, "I'm not a racist."

People don't like to bring up the subject of race because talking about it divides them again. But some of the racial barriers remain.

"You still hear people say, 'wetbacks,'" said the Rev. Tomas Alvarez, 46, who leads the Spanish-speaking congregation at the Church of the Nazarene. "In the Hispanic community, I still hear 'gabacho,'" a derogatory term for Anglos.

At his church, which he calls "Libertad," or freedom, Alvarez worked to reduce the barriers. Although he built the separate church with his own hands for Hispanic worshippers, Alvarez said they often join the Anglo congregation. "Many times we pray together."

But as more Hispanics moved into Beardstown, some longtime residents have moved out. Between 1990 and 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 776 people of German heritage moved away or died, along with 489 of Irish heritage.

Mike Haberman, who has lived in Beardstown all his life, put his $140,000 house on the market in July and is moving his family to a place in the country.

"Beardstown's gotten too crowded with Mexicans," said Haberman, 34, as he and his wife worked in their front yard. "Before long, they'll be changing the street signs and putting them in Spanish."

Haberman cringes when he hears people from other towns laugh and call Beardstown a "little Mexico."

"I think more and more people are getting the same attitude I have. It's time to sell," he said. "If we're going to get our money out, we need to do it now."

At St. Alexius Catholic Church, the demographic changes can be seen in very human terms. The Rev. Eugene Weitzel baptized 12 Hispanic babies over the past two months and just one Anglo infant.

The Rev. Jim Edmiston, a Franciscan priest who offered Spanish-language Masses at St. Alexius in 1999 and 2000, said it's not hate but confusion that is making Anglos flee.

"We don't have in this country an education system or a social service system that helps people deal with that confusion," he said. "The pastors don't know what to do about it, either."

Even after all these years, there's a distance between Beardstown's Anglos and Hispanics.

"It's still like 'us' and 'them,'" Walters said. "Once we get past that and become 'us,' we're all going to be better off."

***

The mayor believes lack of community involvement is holding Hispanics back. When Walters was elected, roughly 2,000 people voted, but fewer than 20 were Hispanics.

"If they've failed in any one area, it's a lack of showing leadership in the community," he said. "I've tried to work with them, but they don't ask for a lot. They don't call you at home. They don't go to city council meetings. I'm sure they feel like outsiders, which they are in a way.

"It would help their cause if they'd get involved in the community to show people that they're not just a bunch of people who swam across the river last night looking for jobs."

Hispanics who've migrated to the United States have a single focus: earning enough money to support themselves and their families in Mexico. The money chase leaves them little time for community activities. Their lives are often restricted to work, home, sleep, work and dreams of one day returning to Mexico.

"A lot of people become citizens, but they don't feel like they're a part of here," said Edmundo Bernal, who works at Excel and owns Salon Azul, a bar. "Once they are citizens, they think that's the end of the process."

Bernal, 35, speaks English and has an easy laugh that helps him bridge the two cultures. He is an American citizen and a Beardstown citizen, a Hispanic who has decided to make Beardstown his home.

For him, the process of being a citizen has only begun.

Bernal reached out to Walters, even though he was irritated that the mayor opposed his application for a liquor license for Salon Azul.

Walters, in turn, worried that the bar, which had a bad reputation under the previous owner, would continue to be a magnet for drug peddlers and other unsavory elements.

So Walters watched Bernal run the bar for several months, even stopping by for a beer every now and then. He caught himself laughing when he drank Coronas and saw the Mexican customers drinking Bud Light.

"I wish I had 6,000 people like him in Beardstown, with his attitude, the way he approaches things," Walters said. "He wants to be part of the community."

Bernal sees the mayor as an example, too.

"Little by little, I think he had realized that I am not the person he thought I was," Bernal said. "And I have realized that he is not the person I thought he was."

Sometimes, Bernal daydreams about running for elected office. It is something he could never have achieved in Mexico, where political candidates are often chosen through a patronage system.

Bernal isn't sure he'll ever make it to city government. But with the Hispanic population continuing to grow, there's not much doubt in anybody's mind that Beardstown will one day have a Hispanic mayor.

***

"Mexican town" is the way some people in nearby communities now describe Beardstown.

At a Beardstown High School basketball game last season, about 20 fans of Brown County High School in Mount Sterling showed up wearing sombreros.

As Beardstown players ran down court, the Brown County fans yelled, "We want tacos," said Tomas Alvarez, a high school senior who was at the game.

"People were mad. They really care about the image of Beardstown. That wasn't just against an ethnic group. It was against the whole town."

Tomas shook off the incident.

"A lot of people say this is becoming a Mexican town. They don't really know what's going on," he said. "I think it may become an international town."

That international flavor already permeates every block in Beardstown.

Hispanics live next door to Anglos. And both are adjusting to new neighbors like Tidiane Soumare from the country of Senegal.

When Soumare arrived in Beardstown a year ago, he was one of only 20 African workers at Excel. Now dozens of his countrymen have moved to Beardstown.

As he looks up and down the production line at Excel, where he earns $11.95 an hour cutting pork, Soumare sees whites, Hispanics, Africans and a Vietnamese named Than.

In this new melting pot on the Illinois River, Soumare has found a quiet life and decent people.

He practices his Muslim religion here, praying five times a day. On weekends, he shoots pool with his Mexican friends.

Soumare was offended when a woman in the nearby city of Jacksonville said, "You're living in that Mexican town."

"She said the Mexican people, they are bad," said Soumare, a tall, lanky 28-year-old who speaks English, French and three African languages. "I told her, 'I don't have no problem with them. I work with them. They are nice.'"

Mamadou Dhioubou, a 30-year-old from Senegal, was the first Excel worker of African heritage to arrive in Beardstown. When he found that jobs were plentiful, he passed the word to his friends.

"I see Africans like Mexican people," said Dhioubou. "We didn't come to mess up America. We're working here. I've been a citizen for 15 years. I want the best for America. God bless America," he said.

***

Many longtime residents of Beardstown welcome the diversity.

"We would never have heard Mexican music 10 years ago. Now it is commonplace to hear different ethnic music," said Wyatt Sager, 48, a lifelong Beardstown resident who is the Cass County death examiner. "Beardstown has a much greater world scope now than it did 10 years ago."

Sager and his wife, Trish, own the town's largest funeral home, so their most personal encounters with Hispanic families have been during moments of profound sadness.

They still remember the first Hispanic parents who asked them to ship their child's body home. Their 17-year-old boy had died of cancer. "He had come up here hoping our medicine could save him, but it couldn't," Sager said.

He and his wife drove the body to Chicago themselves, and they got transit permits in English and Spanish stamped by the Mexican consulate. They saw firsthand the anguish a Mexican family experiences and the arduous process they face in sending a body home.

Now, they understand "that horrible hurt and how separated they must feel from their cultural background."

It bothers the Sagers when their friends in Jacksonville and Rushville tell them "you've just become a little Mexico down there."

"I've heard it so much. The quiet criticism of them as people," said Sager. "No one has the right to criticize someone for who they are. It should almost be taken as a compliment that people chose our community as the bright spot in their lives. That's what I tell people when they say that."

***

Even people in Beardstown who've come to care about their Hispanic neighbors are bothered by the fact that they're violating U.S. immigration laws. American residents are uncomfortable with the laws that force people into a shadow world and they are uncomfortable with the people who live there.

The problem came into sharp focus in June, when dozens of federal agents swept into Beardstown and arrested 12 Hispanics for selling birth certificates and Social Security numbers to Excel workers. Charges were dropped against four of the people, but five others have pleaded guilty. Three more are awaiting trial on the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of five years to 15 years in prison.

Walters said his "hope is that the arrests will not only send a message to illegals who come here but to Excel about its hiring practices. They play in the gray area. They don't violate the law, but they sure don't play by the book, either."

Excel refused repeated requests over the past seven months for a face-to-face interview with a company official. But the company said in a written statement that, "like other businesses, we follow the government's I-9 requirements for verifying employment eligibility."

The mayor said he has repeatedly asked immigration officials to check the plant for undocumented workers. Longtime Excel employees said agents haven't questioned workers at the plant for immigration violations since 1995.

"We've invited them to come down here several times. They told us they don't have the resources. Beardstown doesn't seem to warrant a lot of attention," Walters said. "The truth of the matter is that they could come down here on any given day and put up a roadblock and Excel would have trouble operating the plant."

Six immigration agents are responsible for a vast area that stretches the length of Illinois, from Rockford at northern border to the tiny town of Cairo at the state's southern tip, Beardstown Police Chief Tom Schlueter said. "That spreads them kind of thin."

Greg Archambealt, resident agent in charge of the Springfield office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, declined to comment on the number of agents in the area, but he denied that limited resources are forcing the agency to overlook some employers.

"We're interested in any case that comes across our desk. We do have the resources that we need and we do investigate any violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

"Of course," he said, "our main focus is anti-terrorism and apprehending the most dangerous criminals that might be in the country."

From where Walters sits, the United States has an immigration policy that is disconnected from reality. The laws on the books no longer seem to apply to a nation that depends on immigrant laborers to do its toughest and most dangerous jobs.

Immigration officials estimate that 7 million undocumented workers lived in the United States in the year 2000. The states with the largest increases were California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Illinois.

"Personally, I have no problem with Hispanics being here as long as they're legal," Walters said. "The Hispanics are trying to make a better living for themselves and their families. You can't fault them for that. And I don't. But let's do it the right way."

As long as the current immigration laws are on the books, the fear of being sent back home will always be present.

After the June raid, some undocumented workers moved away. The ones who stayed are worried that patrols by immigration agents will become a regular occurrence in Beardstown, like they are in other meatpacking towns.

For a decade, Beardstown "has been a small corner of refuge.

"People felt secure here," said the Rev. Alvarez.

Now, he's concerned that too much attention has been drawn to this isolated town.

"At any moment the INS could show up," he said. "I expect them to come again."

***

There is stability in Beardstown now, but it is a fragile stability propped up by one large employer, a partially undocumented work force and uneasy residents.

Excel is likely to increase its production over the next five years, bringing hundreds of new Hispanic workers to town. But Beardstown residents also worry Excel could close after 20 years of operation - just like Oscar Mayer did - destroying the gains this community has made.

Not too long ago, the mayor of a town in downstate Illinois asked Walters for advice. Hispanics were beginning to move into her town and she didn't know how to confront the challenges that lay ahead.

But Walters said most mayors of all-white towns are avoiding the issue. The matter wasn't even on the agenda at a recent Illinois Municipal League conference in Chicago.

"They always believe it'll happen every place but in their hometown," Walters said. "It's probably the same mentality that we had at one time."

Walters believes America's heartland will have to find ways to deal with the new cultures, lifestyles and beliefs because the change is irreversible.

"If a genie would jump out of a bottle and ask me if I'd like to have it the same way as 15 years ago, damn right I would," Walters said. "But that's not reality."

Stories copyright 2003 Copley News Service. Reprinted with permission.

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