February 16, 1998
Plentiful jobs have meant more Latino immigrants have become part of the communities in Northwestern Arkansas, home to Tyson Foods. Rogers Mayor John Sampier says the town wants newcomers, but organizations opposing immigration have formed in the area, and long-time citizens fear the culture of their towns will change. Tom Bearden explores the issue.
TOM BEARDEN: To paraphrase the local newspaper, things aren't like they used to be in Northwest Arkansas. For example, not far from the Hog's Breath Restaurant and the Hillbilly Smokehouse is the Acambaro Restaurant and La Mexicana fast food. The population of Rogers, Arkansas, once almost entirely white, is now 12 percent Hispanic. That's 4,000 new people in just the last six years, people like Oscar Corona and his family, who fled first Mexico and then California to come here.
OSCAR CORONA, Mexican Immigrant: (speaking through interpreter) This is a good place to live for the children to grow up. There are more opportunities here.
TOM BEARDEN: Both Oscar and his wife, Irena, work for Tyson Foods processing chicken. She's on the day shift; Oscar works nights. These jobs in the poultry factory began drawing a steady stream of people from Mexico and Central America in the early 90's. But as their numbers swelled, some people began to object, like Jason Riggins and his wife, Mandy. They also work split shifts. He works by day, and she works in the theater at night.
JASON RIGGINS: This country doesn't belong to Tyson or any other corporation that makes their money on cheap labor. The American citizens of this country own this country, and they should be consulted before massive demographic changes are put in place.
TOM BEARDEN: But the immigrants are already here, and employers like Tyson say they're very glad to have them.
BARBARA BERRY, Tyson Foods: We are grateful, for they're loyal; they're on time. Our absenteeism has gone down. Turnover has gone down.
TOM BEARDEN: Barbara Berry is the manager of human services at Tyson Foods, the giant poultry company headquartered in Springdale. She says Tyson would have been forced to close several plants without the new workers.
BARBARA BERRY: There have been other plants and manufacturing and retail businesses and construction that have come in and soaked up an unskilled labor population that was very scarce here to begin with. And with a fluctuation of a 2.3 to a 2.5 unemployment rate, basically everybody that wants to work is working.
TOM BEARDEN: What's happening in Rogers reflects a trend being repeated elsewhere. Immigrants are moving beyond the border states and into the heartland and dramatically changing the face of towns like Rogers. The population shift was a surprise to Rogers Mayor John Sampier, who first noticed it coaching a youth soccer team.
MAYOR JOHN SAMPIER, Rogers, Arkansas: I noticed two complete adult Hispanic soccer teams scrimmaging each other on one of the adult fields. And I commented to the other coach, I said, must be traveling teams. And he said, no, no, John, they live here.
TOM BEARDEN: Not long after, Sampier found himself grappling with unfamiliar big city style issues: reports of racial tension, gang activity, increased drug usage, a housing shortage, and increased demand for health services, and schools suddenly brimming with children that didn't speak English--from forty to over twelve hundred since 1991. So the city launched a coordinated effort to try to make the transition easier on everyone.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT SPOKESMAN: There's a lot of talk about gangs, violence, and tension.
TOM BEARDEN: Sampier hired Puerto Rican-born Al Lopez as a special consultant. One of his first projects was this public service announcement that ran on local TV stations. It was designed to bridge cultural gaps.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT SPOKESMAN: Let's be friends--
TOM BEARDEN: Soon after, the school district also hired him as a student relations coordinator to defuse clashes between whites and Hispanics.
AL LOPEZ, Special Assistant to Mayor: When I started three years ago, it was often; it was everyday, and I would like to see more interaction, but it's a matter of us as grownups maybe creating situations where they can interact. If we go to the Walton Arts Center, for example, to see a play, why just take all Hispanic kids, why just take all Anglo kids, why not take the group together?
TOM BEARDEN: The business community is also trying to help the immigrants adjust.
SPOKESMAN: (speaking through interpreter) This class is for you to learn how to buy a house and qualify for a loan.
TOM BEARDEN: Roland Goicoechea is a vice president at a local bank. He is himself an immigrant who came to the U.S. as a 10-year-old Cuban refugee in 1962. He's volunteered hundreds of hours conducting seminars in the poultry plants, teaching people how to handle their finances. It's strange new territory for people who have never had a checking account before, much less try to qualify to buy a house.
ROLAND GOICOECHEA, First National Bank of Rogers: These people all have dreams, the great American dream of owning a home. It's simply in trying to overcome that fear factor of I'm not worthy of owning a home, these people are extremely timid and shy, and you virtually have to have an aggressive outreach program. You almost have to go out to their homes and drag ‘em into your sessions. But, yes, I believe that the city has gone to great lengths to provide those types of programs. I think that we just can't take it for granted.
TOM BEARDEN: Goicoechea says the seminars are also good business for the bank. He says the new immigrants have been astonishingly good customers.
ROLAND GOICOECHEA: Our experience here in the home-loaning area, we've made over 200 home loans to Hispanics without any defaults whatsoever.
TOM BEARDEN: Mayor Sampier says city leaders are proud of their efforts to reach out and assimilate the newcomers.
MAYOR JOHN SAMPIER: I think that there has been a lot of effort at preventing stresses from occurring, rather than reacting to stresses after they occur. And I think we've been pretty successful at that.
TOM BEARDEN: But there are some who disagree with Sampier's assessment. Ten years ago Dan Morris and his family were living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city that also had a large and growing Hispanic population.
DAN MORRIS, Americans for an Immigration Moratorium: We left the area in ‘88 because crime was increasing, and the sense of security was declining, and there had been a lot of break-ins around our--where we lived.
TOM BEARDEN: Morris chose the Rogers area because, to him, it looked like Norman Rockwell country. Back then, most newcomers were white retirees from the Midwest who were attracted by the area's scenic beauty and recreational amenities. But by last spring Morris was fearful the new Hispanic population would depress wages and real estate values. Then he read a newspaper story that mentioned Tyson Foods had met with city leaders in the early 90's to prepare them for the influx of immigrants.
DAN MORRIS: It just really sort of enraged me, and I went down on the spur of the moment to the city council meeting and had my chance to stand up and say my piece, which I did. And I basically said that if that story's true, Mr. Mayor, you've sold us out. The mayor totally overreacted.
TOM BEARDEN: Sampier called Morris's statement a "personal attack" and ruled him out of order. Later, in a letter, Mayor Sampier told Morris that if people were "discontented for Un-Christian, racist attitudes and choose to leave for such reasons, then I believe my city will be the better for their departure."
MAYOR JOHN SAMPIER: The Chamber of Commerce committee, of which I was a member, assured them, as we assure employers all the time, that whatever the challenge is, the community will do what it can to meet that challenge. That has been misconstrued into even, I believe, reported in the press that virtually I and the Chamber of Commerce were driving buses down to Latin America and loading people up and bringing them back up here.
TOM BEARDEN: Dan Morris says that whatever happened it created a terrific recruiting tool for the organization he founded a short time later--a local chapter of the Americans for an Immigration Moratorium, or AIM.
DAN MORRIS: I think we've all gone through the complaining aspect, the kind of muttering under your breath, what's happening in our community, and that's kind of the way our AIM got started was what we found out was that we weren't all alone, that other people were also tired of seeing our community being colonized and seeing the results of an out-of-control immigration policy really transform and forever possibly alter the nature and character of our community.
TOM BEARDEN: AIM meets monthly at the town library, usually drawing between a hundred and a hundred and fifty people.
LEROY HOBACK, Americans for an Immigration Moratorium: I think the gravity of the situation is getting to be where we are going to have to start taking sides. We're starting to show signs of unity and banding together, and I think we need to continue this.
TOM BEARDEN: The group has also gathered 1200 names on a petition to support a new federal immigration bill that calls for a five-year moratorium on new immigration. Charles Fuque is an attorney and Republican state legislator from Springdale.
CHARLES FUQUE, Arkansas State Legislator: If you keep the constant influx of immigrants that have come from a third world country that are hungry, starving for the American way of life, you can always continually drive down the wages of the American workers. And that's what it's all about. We cannot open our borders to all those people. We just can't do it. The issue is: Is there going to be a United States of America?
TOM BEARDEN: Some people in the area have branded AIM and its members as racist. Jason Riggins belongs to the group, and he says that's not true.
JASON RIGGINS: I'm not a racist. I just don't want to be outnumbered in my own country.
TOM BEARDEN: Riggins and others are afraid the culture of Northwest Arkansas is in the process of being submerged by an alien way of life. They point to Spanish language signs and gas stations painted in Mexican colors as proof.
MANDY RIGGINS: I've gone to the grocery store and other places on more than one occasion and had ‘em get in line behind me and speak, you know, rattle off just, you know, gobs and gobs of Spanish, and I've just felt like I was in a completely different country, and they were making fun of me for not being like them. And it really is uncomfortable. And I don't want my kids to have to feel like that in their own town.
TOM BEARDEN: What rankles them is their perception that city leaders are kowtowing to the new immigrants at the behest of the rich businessmen who run the poultry plants and want cheap labor. Riggins claims hate crimes against Hispanics get lots of publicity, while hate crimes committed by Hispanics are ignored.
JASON RIGGINS: Just like this story here. It makes the news when a mattress gets spray-painted, but if one of the regular U.S. citizens is victimized by a Hispanic, it's not talked about.
TOM BEARDEN: Riggins has photographs of graffiti he says Hispanic teens sprayed on the wall of his apartment building, which he says the local paper declined to publish. Riggins says he moved his family here from Memphis specifically to get away from racial tensions and crime. Ironically, so did the Corona family.
IRENA CORONA, Mexican Immigrant: (speaking through interpreter) In California, I could not allow my sons to go outside and play and feel secure. There is much violence there, plenty of gangs, many things that we don't see here yet.
TOM BEARDEN: But, unlike the Riggins family, the Coronas say they feel quite at home in Rogers.
TOM BEARDEN: Have you felt any opposition to your being here? Has anybody caused any problems for you?
OSCAR CORONA: (speaking through interpreter) Not at all.
TOM BEARDEN: The Coronas and other Hispanic families we talked to seemed unaware of any antagonism from their white neighbors, but Oscar Corona says he understands their concerns.
OSCAR CORONA: (speaking through interpreter) In fact, they are right to be concerned because they are the natives here.
IRENA CORONA: (speaking through interpreter) Well, they have their ways. I am not going to change them, and I don't believe they are going to change the way I am. Here, we are just trying to get ahead.
TOM BEARDEN: And the Coronas believe they are getting ahead. They're very proud of the new home they recently purchased and the progress their three boys are making in school. Al Lopez says they're living proof that Rogers can avoid the kinds of problems between the races that states like California and Florida have experienced.
AL LOPEZ: Why make the same mistakes like let's say California or other places, where it's a division, and you have a Hispanic community there, and you have the Anglo, the African-American? Why can't we see this as an opportunity of people that are arriving here? They want--they want to assimilate. They want to integrate. So it's--for me, it's a matter of time. But every day it's a little better.
TOM BEARDEN: But others say that's nonsense; that this little Arkansas town is only just beginning to confront the serious problems that lie ahead.