Respond to this Article January/February 2005

My New Kentucky Home

The cutting edge of illegal immigration used to be L.A. Now, it's Owensboro.

By Peter Laufer

Route 77 is a small road, an east Texas highway that runs north from Brownsville to Corpus Christi, past the spring break resorts of the Padre Islands. There it connects to Route 37, which takes you to San Antonio. If you turn on Route 35, you'll pass Dallas en route to Oklahoma, following a sagebrush express highway built to cut across nearly empty counties and link the far-flung commercial centers of the Southwest and heartland to one another. From Oklahoma City, you get a choice of destinations, each of them places where Middle America dwindles out into the countryside: west to the panhandle, north to Kansas, east to Arkansas or Missouri, and, eventually, Kentucky. Drive long enough on this route, and you begin to remember the value big interstate roads like these had in allowing farmers to bring their products to market more easily. Step off the road now and then, though, and you begin to notice something else: This set of ur-red state roads has become a main artery for immigration.

When they were not following the harvest, immigrants from south of the border once clustered in a few big cities: Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Denver. By the 1990s, that roster had expanded: meat-packing plants in rural parts of the country, unable to seduce native labor, starting hiring workers off the streets of Veracruz and Morelia, and little Mexican communities started popping up in places like Kennett Square, Pa., and Dalton, Ga. But during the last decade, Mexican immigration has gone through a third iteration: Mexicans are now simply everywhere in the United States.

They are in places with no established Hispanic communities, meat-packing plants, or need for temporary agricultural workers. They are becoming a fixture in middle America. Alabama's Hispanic population more than tripled during the 1990s, for instance. Georgia had 108,922 Hispanics in the 1990 census, 1.7 percent of the population; by 2000, that population had tripled, and Hispanics now account for more than 5 percent of the state's population. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Hispanics more than doubled in states from Kansas to Oregon to South Carolina. A decade ago newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News were experimenting with Spanish-language editions. Now Dallas Morning News has one, and Orlando Sentinel, too.

Changes this profound in the make-up of the heartland communities are unlikely to happen in the political dark, and, indeed, are beginning to make themselves felt in the national debate. Red state, largely Republican lawmakers are going home to districts where their constituents are shocked and concerned that communities that were once 99 percent native-born suddenly have 10, 20, 30 percent immigrants, most of whom are undocumented. They speak different languages, have a different culture, and are competing, or at least seeming to compete, for lower-level jobs.

Wetback Nation
by Peter Laufer
Ivan R. Dee, $26.00

The alarm is so high that these heartland legislators are willing to go up against their own president on key immigration policy matters, even though his policies are driven at least in part by an effort to win Republicans a permanent, larger share of the Latino vote. We saw that most recently when the president's intelligence reform was nearly derailed over demands by conservative house members for stronger crackdowns on the border. Meanwhile, there's a growing revolt by House Republicans against the president's plan to create a guest-worker program. (The Bush plan would allow immigrants to apply for a three-year work visa if they are offered a job by a specific employer, an employer who can certify no U.S. citizen is available for the job. One three-year renewal would be allowed, but the worker could not switch employers if his sponsor no longer needed him.) Bush's guest worker program not only ticks off his party's conservative base, it fails to fix the problem it's supposed to solve. The truth of this is no better illustrated than by visiting the places that are the cutting edges of immigration. Ten years ago, that was southern California. Today, it's Kentucky.

"Some people we are stupid"

Bowling Green, Ky., suffers from ludicrous city planning. The gracious historic city square and most of the surrounding businesses struggle to compete with the endless strip malls along miles of four-lane Scottsville Road, the route from the eviscerated downtown to the interstate highway. At Ford's Furniture along Scottsville, the marquee alternates flashes of 12 months free financing with God Bless America onto the oversized parking lot. From Ford's eastbound, the blight includes the Montana Grill and Tumbleweed restaurants, a Buick and Chevrolet dealership with acres of blacktop and cars, the Home Depot and Best Buy, the vast new Kroger supermarket and its adjoining strip mall.

The people who work at the low end jobs in these places and who man the chicken processing plant and dairy farms in the surrounding hills live in what has historically been Bowling Green's black section. The neighborhood still looks rough but is changing rapidly. Burned-out and boarded-up houses sit alongside tidy bungalows. This wrong side of the tracks is filling up with Hispanics. They can shop at the local general stores named La Mexicana and La Perlita, the Mercado Hispano and Los Camaradas. Prominent banners on the fašades of these stores offer the services of express companies that will ship money to Mexico and other points south. They do a big business in prepaid telephone cards that offer cheap rates for calls to Mexico. The marquee on Teresa's restaurant urges, Pray for our troops--Open 6 AM. Nearby is La Luz del Mundo church. Up the street is Don Chuy's bar and dancehall, its advertising limited to a simple, Baile Vie. Sab., Dance--Fri. Sat.

Professor David Coffey lives in a revitalized Victorian home on a tree-lined main street in Bowling Green. Coffey, ever jolly, middle aged, and definitely white, is an agricultural sociologist at Western Kentucky University, and he's found plenty to study in his rural home state, where he's watched the Latino population grow at an astounding rate, nearly tripling between the 1990 and 2000 census. "They're working in tobacco, landscaping, horse farming, poultry processing, fruits and vegetables, and forestry," he told me. "These are the people who roof our houses, mow our lawns, paint our houses, wash our dirty dishes in restaurants, and clean our dirty laundry in hotels." Coffey estimates that only about 15 percent of the Latinos now living in Kentucky have legal immigration status.

"They come across in trucks," Coffey says he's learned, "usually in eighteen wheelers. They have fish or fruit or ice or something, and the people are in the middle. We're talking forty to eighty people in a truck." Once these trucks are well north of the border, the human freight is transferred to smaller vans that fan out across the country. A couple of years ago, worried about relationships getting testy between native Kentuckians and the newcomers, Coffey got a grant to teach English to the Mexicans and Spanish to the Americans, in the same classroom. This has only increased knowledge of how the illegal immigrant railroad works. Since then, he's come to understand the patterns of immigration to this part of the world, how Hispanics (nearly all of them Mexicans) get here and why. "They usually drop them off at a truck stop in St. Louis or Memphis. They give them $60, and then they call for someone to pick them up. Family members. We have one I'm concerned about who should have been here Saturday, and he hasn't arrived yet. I don't know what happened. He may have been picked up. But eventually they get here, regardless of the law."

One evening when we share a meal at a Mexican eatery, Coffey introduces me to the employees, many of them relatively fresh from south of the border. "They work for three or four dollars an hour when they first arrive, working 10- and 12- hour days," he tells me. "They get one day a week off and all they can eat." When the busboy has caught up with his work hustling dishes, Coffey motions him over to our table. The busboy is a newcomer, just arrived in the United States a few weeks earlier but proud and happy to show off the few English phrases he's already learned.

"How are you?" He smiles. "Want more soda?" He smiles again and then offers, "I love you, baby!"

The busboy will likely be working long hours for low pay until he earns back the two thousand or so dollars it cost in coyote fees to get across the border. Coffey points out a table where a young white couple is eating, washing down their enchiladas with Mexican beer. They are probably college age, but not necessarily of legal drinking age. "The help asks them for proof of age," Coffey explains. "Then they study the license, give it back, and serve the beer. Of course, they can't read."

As the influx of Mexican workers became apparent on the streets of Bowling Green, some old-timers worried. They were suspicious of the young Mexican men who lingered in the Wal-Mart parking lot or waited anxiously on the street corners that had come to serve as ad hoc hiring halls for day labor, worried both that the men might be violent and that their own jobs would come under threat. As the Mexican community has become a more permanent feature of Bowling Green's landscape, and as programs like Coffey's language tutoring have proliferated, those initial tensions have eased--but not been fully erased.

The restaurant manager, who asks me to call him Israel, walked across the border several years earlier. I ask him why he chose to stay in Bowling Green. "Because no problems," he tells me. "In California and New York hay muchos problemas."

He's speaking Spanglish. "Here there are no problems and lots of work. The Americans of Kentucky," he says, "are muy amables," kind and friendly. "There are no problems because Mexicans work hard." He believes Coffey's estimates are high, and that only about 5 percent of the Latinos in Bowling Green are legal. But he points out that all of them carry papers testifying to their legal status. A set of U.S. identification papers, from a driver's license to a Social Security card, takes about three hours to procure on the Bowling Green black market. The going rate rarely exceeds twenty dollars a card.

Even though Israel himself has no legal papers, he doesn't favor an open border between his old and new countries. "The problem in the states is too many peoples, you know? If they open the border, everybody will want to come to this country. This country is number one in the world and it's really nice, and I know that this country is nice to everybody, but see, look what happened September 11th because they give a chance to anybody coming here. I don't say that everybody is mean. Some people we are nice, but some people we are stupid."

Bunk house with satellite dish

Not all employers rely on illegals. Some of them, like Joe Elliott, struggle against all odds to play by the rules. Elliott is a fourth-generation Kentucky farmer with a spread in Owensboro, an hour-and-a-half's drive from Bowling Green. We meet on a crisp autumn day in late November, the peak of the tobacco production season. Elliott is a stocky man, and his work pants are cinched up tight against his belly. His striped work shirt shows off a patch announcing Elliott's Farms. He's wearing a windbreaker against the morning chill, and on his head is a camouflage baseball cap courtesy of the South Central Bank.

"Hey, your hands are cold," his wife Mary Sue's welcome is warm. Mexican music is blaring from the tobacco-drying barn. There the crop is being sorted by type and color--the richer the golden brown, the higher the quality of the leaf. Workers are "stripping the 'baccer," pulling the leaves off the tobacco plant stalks. It is time-consuming handwork. The sorted dried leaves are stacked and then prepared for auction. The tobacco season for these workers lasts about four months. One of the Mexican workers stops stripping the leaves for a moment to explain that in those four months he'll earn what it would take him two years to make in Mexico.

A sign high on the wall advises, "This farm has pride in tobacco."

"It's been real good this time." Elliott is pleased with the harvest. The Elliott farm is 90 acres of tobacco and 1,800 acres of corn and soybeans. Fifteen Mexicans work the place, all in the United States legally on H2A visas. "They're really very good," Elliott says. For some of them it's a regular, if seasonal, job. Elliott has been hiring them and bringing them to Kentucky for several years. "We been to Mexico," says Elliott. "We seen their problems." Elliott says he spends $100,000 to $120,000 a year on labor, up to a third of his gross income, and much of that money goes to Mexico. Under the federal government's H2A visa program for temporary workers (one of the programs President Bush wants to expand), Elliott's responsibilities include transportation and lodging for his workers. He hires a farm labor broker in Kentucky who works with contacts in Mexico to find workers, handles the logistics of bringing them to Kentucky, and satisfies the U.S. government rules and regulations. The broker arranges for visas and passports at a cost of a couple of hundred dollars for each laborer.

"I have probably a few more than I need," Elliott says. "But I don't mind. One of my workers, Alex, stayed home five months and worked construction about ten hours a day. When he finished each day, what he could find to eat somewhere he cooked on the job site. He got cardboard and slept on the job site. For a dollar an hour. He's up here working for $7.20. You think he ain't happy? Now he's got a new baby who was born two months early, who needed lots of care. Where was he at? Right here. Did he want to go home? Yes. Could he go home? No, he needed the money. It cost him $1,500 [for the postnatal care], so he's lost just about everything he's made up here just because of the baby."

Though he believes that those suspicious of the new immigrants amplify the strain they put on local social services, Elliott admits such a strain does exist. "We've had different things--operations that cost $4,000 to $10,000. The hospital has to take care of that. I can't pay it, the Mexicans can't pay it. An operation for appendicitis is $8,000. They can't pay it. They're going to die. What are you going to do? Let 'em die?"

Elliott shows off the two concrete bunkhouses he's built for the workers, quarters that meet or exceed federal standards for H2A workers. "We done insulation. We done it right, all the way around. After work hours they relax. They go fishing here on the farm ponds."

The Kentucky Housing Authority considers Elliott's operation a model for treating farm workers properly. He received a $30,000 grant from the commonwealth to expand one of the bunk houses. "We ended up putting a porch on it. That was really the neatest thing."

Beds are separated with shelves and a clothes rack, offering slight privacy enhanced by curtains. The industrial-looking particle-board walls are punctuated here and there with ad hoc decor: an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, for example, alongside a calendar featuring Old Glory blowing in the wind.

A couch and an easy chair face a television set in one of the bunkhouses. When they're not working, the farmhands watch Spanish language programs via satellite. "That's another $40 a damn month," grumbles Elliott, but he knows the value of such entertainment for people who need to hear their own language.

Joe Elliott sees Owensboro changing around him. "They have filled in all the spots that nobody else wants," he says about Mexican migrants--at the Fields chicken packing plant, on farms like his, even at the local Wal-Mart, where immigrants congregate in the parking lot after hours ("Wal-Mart is the nearest thing to a mercado," the community marketplace in Mexico, "that we have in most places," Coffey says.) And even when native workers are interested in the jobs he's offering, Elliott simply prefers to hire Mexicans instead of the available locals. "We had whiteys that could tell you every basketball game in the last ten years: who won, who played, scores. But they couldn't count six 'baccer plants in one pile at any one time. They was 30 workers out of Owensboro here and there wasn't any of 'em could drive a stick shift. Grown men."

H2A workers can only stay in the United States for nine months at a stretch. On the Elliott farm the goal is to finish the tobacco work by the Christmas holidays. "We work our butts off to make that happen, because we understand that any family man that ain't seen his family for four months, it's time for him to go see his family. That's just how it is. We pay their bus ticket all the way back to their house." Elliott is required to buy a ticket only to the border. "They're not going back"

Joe Elliott bought his farm in 1965. In those days he hired American hands. No longer. "They're not here to hire." It's been several years since he's employed American laborers. "It's not all that bad [for American-born workers], because they got better jobs. Not a part-time labor job, full time. They got benefits. I mean you can work at McDonald's for the same money we're paying here. Anybody who wants to work has got work." But that's not all that's wrecked his native workforce. "There's another thing too. People quit having kids." He can't find a local workforce in the current Kentucky rural younger generation. Without immigrant labor, Elliott says, his farm would be paralyzed.

"Yeah, I'd be out of business." There is no consistent local workforce to work the 40 to 50 hours a week needed to bring in the crops. He pulls out a newspaper clipping about "600 illegals" being caught in the United States. Elliott knows that stopping the influx is impossible; he sees evidence of that fact throughout Daviess County. "There are six million of those guys in the States." But he says he never has liked working with undocumented workers. "It's really not worth it. Honesty and trying to do something upfront the right way is the right way to do it. If I see 45 loaders, and I could steal a load of corn off of every one of them, that's not the right way to do it. I like to work legally."

But problems loom for Elliott's desire to play by the rules.

"The government is either going to change this thing or it's going to force me to go back to undocumented labor. They're not trying to get along with us. With all their paperwork and regulations, they're not trying to help us at all." Elliott used to hire illegals. But the farmer decided to hire legal workers after rumors started spreading through Daviess County that the INS was planning raids and would seek fines of $5,000 per day for each undocumented workers found working local crops. And Elliott was disgusted with the middlemen he felt forced to deal with to hire workers with stolen or forged papers. "It got so scary that we got out of it. The people that was running the damn thing was so crooked. We was getting guys with visas that belonged to people in Tennessee. It was a whole crooked game."

Employers such as Elliott who want to play by the rules have to get H2A or H2B visas for their Mexican workers--and the process for obtaining either one is forbiddingly complex. To obtain an H2A visa, a grower like Elliott must show that no U.S. citizen wants the work, then solicit workers in Mexico, usually through an intermediary who acts as a fixer. Once a deal is made, the worker goes to the American consulate and secures the visa. The grower must provide transport from the border to the job site and back, along with food and housing during the period of employment. The worker cannot change jobs and must return home when the crop is harvested. A tiny minority of Hispanics working in the United States do so with H2A visas, well under a hundred thousand among the millions. These complications mean most employers don't bother seeking the legal route that Joe Elliott has taken, and most workers don't wait for a legal job, but simply jump the border and join the underground economy. This status quo will continue even if President Bush's guest worker proposal is made law. There is little incentive for a worker to register with the government and become what amounts to an indentured servant to a single employer, an employer who can send him or her back to Mexico if there is any dispute.

And not only are the regulations complicated for both H2 visas, but many able-bodied Mexicans simply can't qualify for them. Anyone caught trying to get into the United States illegally or picked up and deported must wait ten years before being considered for an H2 visa.

Another reason the H2 visas are unappealing to Latino migrants is made obvious by David Coffey's research in Kentucky. "The...Hispanics are no longer transient. They're here. They're not going back. They're community members." There's a new little general store in Owensboro, La Reina de Mexico, catering to Latinos: Tienda, taqueria, y caniceria 100% Mexicana, it advertises under the big Mexican flag over its front door--Store, taco stand and meat market 100 percent Mexican. The front windows are plastered with billboards selling through tickets on buses running direct to cities in northern Mexico, money-wiring services, and Spanish-language music CDs.

Coffey argues that this increasing permanence is a good thing, economically; a quiet town like Bowling Green would cease to function without its Latino workforce. But not everyone in the town agrees. Whether you agree or disagree, it probably makes sense to help the ones who are in Bowling Green assimilate. But despite the growing Latino presence in Kentucky, little government support is available to help Latinos learn to become part of their communities. That's due, in part, to the fact that they barely show up on official U.S. Census data. Catholic Charities estimates that the Kentucky Latino population is seven times the number cited by the Census; Coffey figures that's much too low, and he estimates it's twenty times the official count. Since most Latinos in the state are undocumented, Census figures are a joke compared with the real population. "The Census says Bowling Green has 250. We probably have 5,000 or so." Another example he offers is the crossroads town of Albany, where the Census lists only five Latino residents.

"You can see 35 on the square," says Coffey.

Earned citizenship

On Jan. 8, 2004, President Bush assembled members of his cabinet, and a carefully selected group of Hispanics, in the East Room to announce his plan to deal with undocumented immigration. During his short speech he tried to placate those frustrated by the inequities of U.S. immigration policy, identifying the crisis honestly and correctly.

"As a nation that values immigration and depends on immigration, we should have immigration laws that work and make us proud," Bush said, looking ahead to the November 2004 elections and the huge blocks of Hispanic and other immigrant voters. "Yet today," the president acknowledged, "we do not. Instead, we see many employers turning to the illegal labor market. We see millions of hardworking men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive undocumented economy. Illegal entry across our borders makes more difficult the urgent task of securing the homeland. The system is not working."

The president succinctly assessed the problem. But his proposed solution was vague and filled with traps for immigrants working in the United States, for their employers, and for the rest of us. The Bush plan is not another amnesty, like the one Congress and the Reagan administration agreed to in 1986, for workers who have been contributing for years to the American economy and culture. It is not a plan to give those immigrants already living here without documentation a chance at "earned citizenship," which is what the Democrats have suggested. Nor it is a plan for the free flow of people across the U.S.-Mexico frontier. The Bush plan is a guest worker proposal that will, in the president's own words, "match willing foreign workers with willing American employers when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs."

But this solution, by failing to comprehend the nature of the situation, merely extends the system's present flaws. As the employers I met with in Bowling Green and countless other areas of the country attested, illegal immigrants are now a permanent, needed part of the economy. The president is right to argue that they do a class of work that natives won't. But his plan is fit to handle a group of temporary workers making up a marginal part of the American workforce. It does nothing to lift the burden on employers to prove that no Americans will take a job they want to offer to a Mexican legally--a restriction so stringent that it encourages employers to hire illegal immigrants. Nor does it lift the strict demand that an employee stick with one employer, a regulation that discourages Mexicans from taking the visas and instead leads them to come here illegally. And it does nothing to encourage those Mexicans who have no deal with an American employer from jumping the border. No solution can ameliorate all the cultural, political and economic strains caused by the increasing influx on undocumented immigrants into America. But to be effective at all, any response must begin with the recognition that no government in history has managed to stop eager employers and willing workers from getting together. That truth is now playing out in places like Kentucky. Washington can either fight this reality and force both employers and immigrants into the shadows of illegality, or accept it and find a way that most if not all sides can live with.

Peter Laufer has reported from Mexico and the Borderlands for more than 20 years. This article is adapted from his latest book, Wetback Nation, published by Ivan R. Dee. Copyright 2004 by Peter Laufer.


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