The Magazine

Hola, Delaware!

How Guatemalan immigrants changed a small American town.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Georgetown, Delaware

"Cristo viene," reads a bumper sticker on a beat-up old Econoline van parked in front of the police station here. " Estás preparado?" The van has North Carolina license plates, even though its owner lives down the street. Many of the other cars parked in the ramshackle nineteenth-century neighborhood called Kimmeytown have North Carolina or Pennsylvania plates. Shortly after 9/11, Delaware governor Ruth Ann Minner blocked the issuance of tags to people who couldn't prove their citizenship with a Social Security card. North Carolina and Pennsylvania ask fewer questions. That is a big plus here. Kimmeytown is inhabited almost entirely by Guatemalan immigrants who, around 1993, suddenly started showing up in their thousands.

Half a block away is a two-story house where someone put up pillars a few decades back to make it look more like Tara. Now there's a sprung sofa on the front porch and--a desideratum of Guatemalan-American houses--garlands of Christmas lights dangling from the roof. The whole building is leaning rhomboidally. Houses take a beating here. In the past decade the local papers have been full of stories of illegal immigrants living a-family-to-a-room or three-dozen-to-a-basement.

Inside the station, the crew-cut police chief William Topping sits amidst a flag, his military decorations, a mounted pistol of some kind, and a gigantic box of Advil within arm's reach. "We have people who die and can't get death certificates because we have no birth certificates," he says. "We get calls from all over the country from people saying: 'I've never worked at a chicken plant and I've never been to Delaware, and the IRS tells me I owe taxes for working there.'"

Delaware's reported immigrant population has nearly doubled since 2000--to 67,000--and 9 percent of births in the state are to illegal immigrant mothers. There are around 3,000 Chinese in the northern part of the state, most of them students or high-tech workers around Wilmington and Philadelphia. There are mosques up there, too. There are a handful of Haitians in some agricultural towns. Pretty Czech and Polish girls dominate the cash-register and waitressing jobs in the coastal resorts from about May to September. That, of course, is small potatoes compared with the past two decades' mass migration elsewhere in the country. But it has been sufficient to bring about an unprecedented transformation of many towns in the bucolic and historically poor south of the state.

Suddenly a minority

Sussex is the southernmost of Delaware's three counties. Almost everyone who has studied it thinks it resembles an outpost of the Bible Belt or the Deep South that has somehow come loose and attached itself to the mid-Atlantic. "The northernmost county of Mississippi," some New Yorker writer is said to have written years ago. A long coal train chugs through the middle of Georgetown on the way to the electrical plant at Dagsboro. At Smith's Family Restaurant on Market Street, there are tables full of potbellied, 60-ish men in plaid shirts and suspenders and hunting caps and jeans. There are small-town notables--mostly lawyers, for this is the county seat--in tight, two-piece suits, who can't seem to keep their hands off the backs of the people they're talking to. And there is a woman at the front door who says, "Have a blesséd evening" when you tell her how good the chicken with dumplings was.

Delaware voted for Breckenridge in the election of 1860, and its sympathies in the Civil War were uncertain. In New Castle County, near Wilmington, they leaned Union. Down here, Confederate sympathies (and enlistment) increased throughout the war. There is a historic whipping post in Georgetown, though accounts diverge on when the authorities stopped using it. The WPA guide, published at the tail end of the Depression, insists it was still in use in 1938. Desegregation was slow--Georgetown's William C. Jason High School, the Negro high school for the county, closed only in 1967.

One difference between Sussex County and the Deep South is that the white population of Sussex County is much less diverse. Virtually all the white people here are English, Welsh, or Scots-Irish--and Methodist, for this is the cradle of American Methodism, with the denomination's very oldest churches. You seldom meet a person whose surname isn't also the name of a nearby street. From the eighteenth century until the mid-twentieth-century leisure boom that turned nearby Rehoboth and Bethany from Methodist prayer camps into summer resorts, Georgetown's experience with immigration--even of migration from elsewhere in the United States--was next to nil.