How Guatemalan immigrants changed a small American town.
Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
"When they arrived, they were the sorriest looking people you ever saw in your life," says Carlton Moore, a real estate developer who works on projects in Kimmeytown. "But they were always willing to work."
Birds of passage
Local farms are heavily manned by immigrant labor, most of it seasonal. The first Latinos recruited to Delaware may have been Mexicans hired at the border in the late 1980s under H2B visas, by the now-defunct Draper King Cole canning company and others. But it is the chicken-processing industry that people think of when they think of Delaware Hispanics. The processing of poultry is the objective correlative of those "jobs Americans won't do" that we hear so much about whenever illegal immigration is discussed. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the percentage of meat-processing workers who are Latino increased from under 10 percent to almost 30 percent in the last two decades of the twentieth century. It is very easy to see how the chicken industry around Georgetown became, by industry estimates, 85 percent Hispanic.
There are two big chicken-processing companies headquartered in Delaware: Mountaire (in Selbyville) and Allen (in Seaford). Perdue, which has its main office just across the state line in Salisbury, Maryland, and Arkansas-based Tyson's also have large-scale operations here. Contrary to popular caricature, this is not the chicken capital of the country--Delaware ranks only seventh in broiler production, according to the National Chicken Council. But it was here that the "broiler industry"--a broiler is a young chicken bred for eating, not laying--developed before the Second World War. And Delmarva is probably the place where the rest of the local economy is most interlinked with, and dependent on, chicken. Delaware has gone in recent decades from an agricultural economy based on truck farming to one based on two crops: feed corn and soy. These are ancillary to the local chicken industry. Since the soil on the peninsula is good but not great, Delaware soy and corn are not price-competitive against those grown elsewhere in the United States. They can be grown for a profit only because they can reach one particular consumer--the chicken processors--at next to no transportation cost. As the broiler goes, so goes the entire economy of the southern inland of the state.
Every day, at the Perdue plant a quarter-mile east of Kimmeytown, almost 100 container trucks full of birds are turned into Oven Stuffer Roasters. There are three shifts. One runs from 5 in the morning until early afternoon, another starts then and runs till around 9:30 at night (the length of the shift varies according to the size of the "kill"), at which point the sanitation shift comes in and scrubs the plant down until morning.
Why is there such a desperate need for foreigners to do this work? It is not that workforces have grown. True, since 1960, the consumption of broilers has roughly quadrupled (while the consumption of both beef and pork has fallen slightly). But this spike in demand has been met by mechanization. At 6,000-7,000, the number of food production workers in this part of Delmarva is probably slightly lower than it used to be.
At most chicken plants, there is still a lot of manual work. There are groups of eight or ten men in chain-mail aprons removing breasts with super-sharp knives. For roasting chickens, there is a guy who pumps plastic thermometers into the birds with a thermometer gun (an innovation of the last five years); vacuum-packed whole birds still have their leg joints cracked and folded by hand. But what present-day chicken workers mostly do is back up machines, catching the 2 percent to 3 percent of birds that the vacuums and cleansers and rotating blades don't do a thorough job on. Thus, at a modern plant, you can now run 105 birds a minute on two evisceration lines using eight or ten people. In 1980, to manage 70 birds a minute, you would have needed 35 to 40. "We used to have a whole army out there," says one manager who has worked in Delaware poultry for decades.
With a lot of slippery floors and fast-moving knives, it can be dangerous work--but it is not particularly dangerous by manufacturing standards. All the Delmarva poultry companies routinely rack up millions of consecutive hours without a workplace accident, and hold company picnics and parties to celebrate when they do. Workers are constantly shifted between different tasks to reduce muscle strain and the kind of boredom that can cause mishaps. Nor are workers ripped off. At Perdue, for example, the hourly pay starts at $9.70, rising to $10.20 for a "line leader." Benefits vary from company to company, but Perdue contributes to 401(k) programs for its workers and offers ten-dollar doctor's visits for all employees who request them.
But in general, chicken processing is tough work. Parts of any plant are unpleasantly hot, like the gate where the new birds come in to be hung by the legs from shackles, stunned in an electrical bath, and decapitated. Other parts are unpleasantly cold, like the dank and rather Gothic-looking cooling room, where it is always 36 and workers run through billows of steam in their turtlenecks and down vests. It is loud with the banging of carcasses on metal as they're dropped into the chill vat, and it's wet with the constant washing and sluicing that is going on.
The problem for poultry processors has been retention. Today, the companies have 3 percent monthly turnover in their workforce. This is a sea change. Two decades ago, a plant would lose 10 to 15 percent of its workers per month--that is, at any given moment, most of the workers in a plant would have been hired in the past four or five months. This is how immigrants wound up dominating the poultry industry. It is not that corporations sought to unload their local workers wholesale and replace them with cheaper and harder-working ones. It is that every time a local worker quit, he was replaced by a Guatemalan who didn't, and the job changed from a stopgap into the lifeline for a family.
Complicating this adjustment is that Delaware is not just a land of old industries. The general trajectory of immigrants in Delaware is from the industrial economy, which does not require English, into the service economy (mostly landscaping, construction, and restaurant work), which does. The service industries are highly developed on the coast, just ten miles away. There, a boom in real estate, retail, and restaurants is changing life in Sussex County more than immigration. The median age in most states, including Delaware, is 36 or 37. In Sussex County, it is creeping towards the mid-40s. New development, the tendency of people to retire to summer houses, youth flight, and a state tax code with a generous "pension exclusion" are all turning Sussex into what real-estate agents refer to as a NORC, a "naturally occurring retirement community."
In such places, it is easy to understate the demand for immigration by mixing up "workforce participation" and "employment." Why, many people ask, does southern Delaware need immigrants when its unemployment rate is in low single digits? The answer is that even in communities made up disproportionately of retirees, there's still work to be done. In Rehoboth and Fenwick, the retirees are not "unemployed," but they're not paving the roads they drive on or cutting their own grass, either.
The juxtaposition of these two economies has created the single largest problem faced by immigrants and by Georgetown. It has made moderate-income housing unprofitable. In the center of Georgetown, crowding persists, even as townhouse developments and suburban subdivisions and "active adult" communities for the 55-and-older set spring up on its outskirts. When the decade began, no house in Georgetown had ever sold for more than $200,000; today there is a development just east of town where the prices start in the high $200s. According to Lucia Campos of NCALL, a nonprofit that gives financial advice to the working poor, the going rate to rent a so-so house in Georgetown is $1,200 a month. So when $9.70 an hour is also supporting a family and relatives back home in Guatemala, it is not surprising that families double and triple up. There ought to be opportunities to build and renovate for this market. But immigrants had the bad fortune to arrive in Georgetown at exactly the moment when the retirement of the Baby Boomers was transforming Georgetown from a "hick town" into a "destination . . . just minutes from the beach!"
Kevin Andrade, an Ecuadoran journalist who broadcasts in Spanish three hours a week on local radio station WGMD, says he has heard that 50 percent of immigrants eligible for renewal of their "temporary protected status"--which allows them to stay in the United States if their home country has been hit by a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998--don't exercise it. Many immigrants have developed the conviction, he says, that if Congress should offer amnesty to illegal immigrants, those who are legal will not be permitted to stay. Apparently, they are used to life-or-death questions with ironic answers. On a 100-degree Sunday afternoon from a radio studio in the middle of a cornfield, Andrade pleads with his listeners, "If you have the opportunity to renew, don't wait for tomorrow! Having your documents in order is the most important thing of all." That, at least, is something that everyone in Delaware can agree on. Dan Gaffney, the programming director at the station, is on the air himself for 20 hours a week. His conversations vary, but his callers insist on one thing: "They're adamant," he says, "about this legal-illegal status thing." That is, they care a lot, rhetorically at least, about whether an immigrant came into the country with a visa or sneaked across the border.
So does Jan Ting, a law professor at Temple University. Ting has the Republican endorsement to run for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Tom Carper in November. He was an assistant commissioner of the INS under "Bush 41," as he calls him, and is campaigning on immigration as his "number-one issue." That his own parents were immigrants--his father, a refugee from Japanese-occupied China, fought for the United States in World War II--does nothing to reduce his sympathy for Delawareans who are riled up about newcomers' paperwork. "People should be riled up," he said during a campaign swing through Sussex County. "The [Wilmington] News-Journal doesn't print the race of perpetrators. So you know they won't print immigrant status."
Ting feels that Americans were sold a bill of goods with the 1986 "Simpson-Mazzoli" immigration reform, which extended amnesty to workers in exchange for heightened enforcement of immigration laws. He doesn't want it to happen again. It was predicted that a million immigrants would gain amnesty; 3 million did. The enforcement never happened. Ting sees today's Senate bill, which offers a path to citizenship to those here, as similarly naive. He cites a Bear Stearns study arguing that there are 20 million illegal immigrants in the United States now, rather than the 12 million usually reported. The worst problem with the Simpson-Mazzoli approach, Ting believes, is that all it required employers to do when hiring an employee was to look at a document on its face, rather than verify it. "It has provoked a huge industry in counterfeit documents," he says.
Ting is quite right. The 1986 law has given companies that hire immigrants what amounts to plausible deni ability, should they happen to hire an illegal one--or should they happen to hire illegals systematically. It is not a coincidence that Phoenix, the first stop on many immigrants' journeys into the United States, also ranks first in identity theft. Ting suggests an electronic verification system such as is used when you buy something with a credit card. "Does that work," he asks, sitting in a coffee shop in Lewes, "or does that not work?"
It does work. But there already is such a system, the INS's Employer Verification Pilot (EVP). Many area companies, including Perdue, already use it for every em ployee hired. Fraudulent papers are grounds for dismissal. But civil rights laws make it hard to challenge a new hire's documents. Courts have assumed that the only reason one would want to be so intrusive is that the worker in question has brown skin or talks funny.
Phony numbers and identities, once established as untraceable, can be used for years, and even recycled from immigrant to immigrant. In the late 1990s, the Washington Post ran a number of News-of-the-Weird-style stories about Delaware immigrants whose assumed identities had tied them in knots--the man whose identity came with alimony payments from a previous user, for instance, and who kept making the payments to a woman he'd never met because the ability to work was worth more to him than the monthly deductions. It is easy, too, to imagine the Damoclean menace that a long-ago decision to fudge one's identity would cause. Phony statements tend to beget phony statements. There must be many a long-established paterfamilias waiting--like Bulstrode in Middlemarch or Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge--for a long-ago misdeed to catch up with him.
Crime among Georgetown immigrants that does not involve their legal status is low. There is a serious problem with illegal driving. And there is rampant, self-destructive, lie-down-in-the-middle-of-the-street alcoholic binging, of a sort that will not exactly surprise anyone who has visited rural Guatemala. But there appears to be none of the gang activity that some immigrant groups in bigger cities fall into. This spring, one local police officer told WBOC in Salisbury that there had been activity by the Salvadoran gang MS-13 in the area. Police Chief Topping disputes that. "These people's main relationship with crime," he says, "is as victims of it."
Immigrants are victimized in subtle ways. Those who get hired with a fake Social Security number (and get accused of "ripping off the system" on right-wing talk radio) are paying money into FICA and Social Security that they will never see. They are also victims of more overt robberies. Many workers are afraid or unable to use banks. They walk around with their life savings in their pocket--great wads of many thousands of dollars. Those who live among nonfamily members often padlock themselves in their rooms. And since, in these dried-out buildings, solitary men tend stupidly to put four or five appliances on a single extension cord--cooker, television, space heater, mini-fridge, lamp--fires are frequent, and sometimes fatal. Workers add to their bankrolls at the end of every week when the check-cashing vehicle pulls into the parking lot of the chicken plant. The money is with them when they go into the liquor store with friends. It's with them when they wander into the woods behind the First State Community Action building. And it's with them when they fall down drunk. But it's not always there when they wake up.
Not left behind
Given their vulnerability, their high levels of illiteracy, and the language barrier, one naturally expects the children of these immigrants to be struggling a bit. They are not. They are doing extremely--almost shockingly--well. Latinos make up 40 percent of the student population at Georgetown North elementary school, and that percentage is steadily rising. They will make up 55 percent of the first graders who arrive on the first day of school next month. Thanks to No Child Left Behind laws, there is a bevy of data broken down all sorts of ways on school progress. Hispanics in the third grade at Georgetown North are outscoring both whites and blacks in reading comprehension.
This should not surprise us as much as it probably does. Obsessed as we are with upward social mobility, Americans harbor a sneaking assumption that only educated parents can have educated children. Learning, the thinking goes, is a matter of playing Mozart in pregnancy and keeping the Classic Children's Books strewn tastefully about the bedroom. This is quite wrong. You don't learn by aping the learned classes--you learn by taking the work of learning seriously. Latino children come to school as ready to work as their parents do at the plant. Asked if Latino parents did anything differently, James Hudson, the principal at North Georgetown, says, "The first question parents ask at parent-teacher conferences is not 'How are my child's grades?' but 'How is my child's behavior?'"
There may also be a political factor behind young Latino students' success. In the early decades of mass immigration--say from the seventies through the nineties--a lot of the ideas about what makes a new community successful were simply borrowed from the utopian left of the civil rights movement. One great advantage of the Delaware immigration, it turns out, is that it happened after a lot of baseless nostrums of the caring professions were discredited. Institutions were built up in the more pragmatic spirit of Gingrich Republicanism, without any immigrants'-rights establishment protecting its entrenched programs and its turf.
Asked about bilingual education, Hudson gives a look as if he's never heard the term before. "The key is that all kids have access to the regular curriculum," he says. "You don't want to isolate them from what the other kids are learning." North Georgetown has three English-Language Learner teachers. One of them, Meg Lawson, says that her immigrant students are possessed of a great curiosity. "They like the nonfiction more than the fiction. That surprised me." Her second-graders last year particularly liked learning about hibernation and migration. What about teaching them about their culture? "I try to do different books that aren't about their own culture," she says. "They know their own culture. Some tests try to use more names like José or Juan. I don't think that makes a difference."
In rural areas, school systems are doubly important, because some of the work of assimilation that cities do automatically doesn't get done there. An urban immigrant has to know enough English to buy a subway token. A rural immigrant can disappear into a subculture as iso lated as that of the Amish. Such subcultures can be picturesque and upstanding, but it is probably a mistake to encourage them when the influx of immigrants is as large as it is today.
Who are those five thousand people?
Until this past winter, immigrants in Delaware were decidedly apolitical. Unions have had some success at organizing chicken-catchers (the people who grab the chickens to be sent to slaughter), but none of the processing-plant workers are unionized. Immigrant communities across the country had been boiling for weeks over House Bill 4437--the tough immigrant-enforcement measure sponsored by Wisconsin congressman James Sensenbrenner--before anyone in Georgetown had ever heard of it.
The decision to stage a rally in downtown Georgetown in support of nationwide demonstrations on February 14 seems to have been made on February 12 or 13, by several local leaders. Pastor René Knight of Iglesia Metodista Unida Betel had been in touch with two groups--the National Council of La Raza and Day Without an Immigrant/Philadelphia. Knight, a big, charismatic man from the Dominican Republic, has traveled to Guatemala, as have many Protestant evangelists in recent decades. He estimates that 45 percent of Guatemalans, not just in the United States but in their home country, are evangelical Christians of some description. "Real religion is social religion," Knight said in an interview in July. "As a pastor I have a call to be in the community. How am I to preach the Good News of Jesus closed in a building?"
That was the beginning of a season of protest in Georgetown, which brought tensions with immigrants to their highest point since the mid-1990s. Much of the organizing was done by churches. On March 7, a local Catholic priest from Colombia, with the help of Mexicans without Borders and the Hispanic Coalition of Delaware, took five busloads of South Delaware Latinos to Washington for a protest. On April 10, many of the same groups joined in the National Day of Action for Immigration Justice.
The Day Without an Immigrant held on May 1 was supposed to mark an escalation of protest nationwide, with calls on immigrants not only to stay home from work but also to refrain from spending money. It was an impressive event in Georgetown, with thousands massing in a park off of Bedford Street, but less confrontational than in other parts of the country. Loose talk about punishing local businesses is stupid politics in a small town. "We told our constituents that we were not joining that," says René Diaz, a Puerto Rican schoolteacher from nearby Bridgeville, and one of the more active organizers with Mexicans without Borders, "because it wouldn't be right, given the cooperation we'd received." It isn't too wise, either, to alienate an area's largest employer--in this case, the chicken plants--and this led to another local variation. "We never sprang a march on them," Diaz says. "The people in Human Resources were told well in advance. One thing we always said clearly: 'The chicken plants are cooperating. If you're in danger of losing a job, don't march.'"
These marches and demonstrations divided community leaders. Some favored the activism as a show of force: Here was one industry, after all, where the vast majority of workers were immigrants, and the dependence of employers was abject. On May 1, four of the five poultry-processing plants in the county closed. By assembling what Mayor Wyatt calls "two, three, four thousand people" in a town the size of Georgetown, the Latinos showed themselves not just a force in the community, but a majority.
They may have proved their point too well. "It was stupid," says one community leader who asked not to be identified. "Why hurt the very people who want to have you here?" Commercial leaders and personnel directors from the poultry industry coordinated with march leaders to minimize disruptions, just as Diaz said. That left the poultry execs in an awkward position. All right, many people muttered, if all your workers are legal, then who are those five thousand people out on the circle?
There is another curiosity about the protests in Georgetown. One constantly meets leaders of the Hispanic community in South Delaware who are Puerto Rican, Spanish, Colombian, Dominican, Ecuadoran, Mexican . . . but never any Guatemalans from Kimmeytown. Why is that? Most people, when you ask, will say something about the legacy of Guatemala's civil war, and lessons learned in a place where the slightest political involvement can be deadly. But René Knight thinks the incentives to keep one's head down come from closer to home. "Their status does not allow them to speak out," he says, explaining that his own ability to take a high public profile is due to his U.S. citizenship. Kevin Andrade, the radio host, offered a different explanation, which, if true, would show how profoundly Guatemalans have assimilated into the life of the most Confederate part of Delaware and one of the most conservative parts of the United States. "People in this area hate politicians, anyway," he said.
The price of purity
"I'm a great Limbaugh fan," says the realtor Carlton Moore, trying in a very Sussex County way to temper the lèse-majesté that will follow, "but he's dead wrong saying we don't need 'em. We do need 'em. Saying that if chicken plants paid $20 an hour Americans would do the work . . . it's not that simple. I think sending them back would tear the economy apart." Mayor Wyatt agrees: "That's not gonna work."
Still, there is a can't-live-with-'em, can't-live-without-'em ambiguity about the way this immigration is transpiring that immigrants are the first to admit. "I understand why U.S. citizens feel terrible," says Andrade. "Everybody needs to stay under the law. The biggest problem is the border. It needs to be controlled. If you don't know who is living in your neighborhood, how tranquil can you be about your kids?"
And yet, as Friedrich von Hayek showed, markets work through millions of informal, word-of-mouth channels. Once we strip the problem down to its economic essentials, "getting serious about illegal immigration" means replacing a free system with one in which regulators determine how many immigrants America needs and gets. Of course, economic essentials are not everything. A country is a culture too, and a wide open labor market can break a culture's cohesion. Laws may need to be passed, and bureaucrats empowered, to protect it.
We should be aware of what we're doing, though. If the border is controlled--and if the book is thrown at all those Mam-speaking chicken workers with their phony IDs and their alcoholic binges and their unusually hard-working children--there will be a price to pay. There is not a demand in Georgetown for a certain quota of different-looking poor people. There is a demand for people from Tacaná who have two decades' experience in the peculiar Delaware economy of chicken, soybeans, and retirement homes, and two decades of ties to the community out of which that economy grows. It is not, in fact, certain that the economy of Sussex County could survive without them, for Delawareans have gotten too old and too rich to maintain it on their own. Those who maintain it for them are a conservative force, made necessary because, as Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard, "If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change."
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. He is at work on a book on immigration, Islam, and Europe.