Bucking the trend toward intolerance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GEORGETOWN, Del. -- David Bloodsworth, part-time mayor, doesn't know how many people live in his town anymore.

But trash collection is up, housing is tight, and the police chief is pushing to hire a Spanish-speaking officer.

Immigration -- 1990s style -- has come to Georgetown, a 203-year-old hamlet whose official history is titled "Sixteen Miles From Anywhere." What began as a trickle five years ago has turned into a flood. Immigrants, mainly from Guatemala, have taken jobs in local chicken processing plants. Numbering from 400 to 1,200 -- no one has counted -- the immigrants have crowded into ramshackle single-family homes and stretched town services designed for 4,114 longtime residents.

"I get emotional and feel very strong about this," said Mr. Bloodsworth, a 57-year-old former school teacher who became the town's mayor three months ago. "When I ran for office, I said, 'The Latinos are here and they are here to stay. Will we make it a negative experience or a positive experience?' "

The question could echo throughout America, a nation of immigrants that periodically slams its doors against new arrivals.

Mr. Bloodsworth is fighting against a national tide of sentiment in favor of again shutting the doors.

He has not paid much attention to the polls that show Americans want to do this. He has not heard much of the incumbent governor of California who has revitalized a flagging campaign by hammering away at illegal immigration.

And he is not in intimate touch with the political maneuvering over the more than 30,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees who have been placed in the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

All Mr. Bloodsworth knows is this: He wants desperately to help the Guatemalans assimilate into a community that was once three-quarters white and one-quarter black.

"In a small town like this, what can you do?" Mr. Bloodsworth said. "We need H-E-L-P. Health. Education. Language. Protection."

Georgetown, with its quaint Victorian homes and magnificent brick courthouse, would appear to be one of the last places to be a magnet for immigrants.

Now, in a section of town by the railroad tracks, rooms often rent by plant shift hours, forged work visas can be had for $50 and police often encounter unlicensed drivers in unregistered automobiles.

Language is a barrier. Fewer than a dozen townspeople speak Spanish. The Guatemalans speak virtually no English.

Georgetown, 16 miles from anywhere, is now part of the front line.

The story of immigrants overwhelming local services -- and creating a backlash -- has been repeated over and over in places like New York, Texas, Florida and California. It has also occurred in a small city like Wausau, Wis., which saw a modest effort to take in a few Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s balloon to an immigrant community of more than 4,000 today.

America is in the midst of the greatest immigration wave since the turn of the century, when 14.5 million newcomers streamed into a country less than half of today's size over two decades. Yet it appears Americans are growing weary of providing shelter for the tired, poor, huddled masses of the world.

Just check the political races in California, which has absorbed 3.5 million of the nearly 10 million legal immigrants who have entered the country since 1989. Nearly half the estimated 3.5 million illegal aliens also reside in the state.

Pete Wilson, the incumbent Republican governor, and Diane Feinstein, the incumbent Democratic senator, have aired tough commercials on illegal immigration. The Nov. 8 California ballot also features Proposition 187 -- a measure that would ban public services to illegal immigrants. Latest polls show lopsided support for the initiative.

"People basically are in a constricting mood when it comes to immigrants," said John Brennan, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll.

The mood has been building for more than a year, punctuated by such incidents as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing -- carried out by illegal aliens from the Middle East -- and the dumping of 256 Chinese nationals off the rusting freighter The Golden Venture in New York.

Toss in changing economic times, the televised images of desperateHaitians and Cubans making their way to the United States on makeshift rafts, and you have the recipe for a backlash.

"Anti-immigration emerges from and then lags economic change," said Michael Fix, co-author of an immigration report for The Urban Institute, a Washington policy think-tank. "In times of economic stress, we often focus on new problems and new issues. We often change enemies."

It has happened before. The great immigrant wave at the turn of the century was shut down in 1924, less than a decade after the end of World War I. Some would like to shut the gates again.

Nancy Thomson, an Orange County, Calif., homemaker whose ancestry goes back to the Mayflower, is part of a burgeoning grass-roots effort to force an immigration moratorium. Congress passed three major immigration bills between 1980 and 1990, defining refugees, granting amnesty to illegal aliens, and raising the annual number of immigrants to be admitted.

"This country has no idea how many people are coming in," said Mrs. Thomson, organizer of Citizens for Responsible Immigration.

"There are so many Americans out of work," she said. "Illegal aliens will underbid the legals. The illegals will live 22 to a room. They will charge less to do a job. They bring down the economic status of everyone."

'They work hard'

Le Trong Phu, a Vietnamese native who settled in Maryland 20 years ago, hears such talk and grows annoyed. He works for a Catholic Relief resettlement program, finding jobs for newly arriving immigrants.

"Most Americans believe that immigrants come here and go on welfare," he said. "That is just not true. They work. They work hard."

In a place like Georgetown, if there is one thing that binds the new arrivals to the longtime residents it is this: hard work.

The Guatemalan immigrants, and a smattering of Haitians and Mexicans, have proved their mettle in chicken-processing factories like the Perdue plant on the outskirts of town. They'll work eight-hour shifts for as little as $6.60, and up, hitching on rubber boots and gloves, doing the tedious, unpleasant task that yields chicken bound for American homes and fast-food restaurants.

Workers like Lidia Perez are grateful for the opportunity. Ms. Perez, 21, arrived in Georgetown from San Marcos, Guatemala, 15 months ago and now sends half her paychecks home.

"Some cannot put up with this kind of work," she said. "Some may feel they are too good for these kinds of jobs."

Ms. Perez followed a well-traveled path to Georgetown. More than 200 others have arrived from her hometown, lured by steady work and comparatively high wages. Poultry industry officials deny they have sought Guatemalans, who have been eligible to obtain temporary work visas. But the industry has expanded production dramatically since the mid-1980s when America's appetite for chicken became insatiable. Some workers said they paid "coyotes," or recruiters, several hundred dollars for transportation to Georgetown.

The immigrants have carved out their niche on the east side of town. They live in peeling, single-family homes that have been broken up into tiny, overcrowded rooms. It is squalid, but there is life here, music that cuts through the air, old cars and vans that belch smoke and carry a half-dozen or more workers to their jobs, and two food stores that cater to Latino tastes.

Undercurrent of mistrust

But longtime residents are skittish, even angry. Property values nearby have declined. And the music that the immigrants listen to can sound awfully jarring after midnight.

"We've got slumlords in Georgetown," said local farmer James Baxter. "It is real sickening to see the town where my friends have grown up taken over like this. There are some nice workers. They want to do right. But seeing the town deteriorate is what bothers me."

There is no outright hostility directed toward the immigrants, but there is an undercurrent of resentment, loose talk of "foreigners taking jobs and taking over the town."

"There is definitely a mistrust, and a feeling of prejudice," said Richard Preston, 44, who works at a Super Fresh in Denton, Md. "I coach in Little League baseball and soccer. The immigrant kids who come out there are no different than the American kids. They like to have fun."

Mayor Bloodsworth is determined to overcome the prejudices.

"You have people who expect things like they were 50 years ago," he said. "But it's 1994, and things do change over time. There are lots of people in town willing to open up to these people and help them."

At the local health clinic, the staff meticulously checks each immigrant for tuberculosis. They struggle with translating medical terms from English to Spanish. They try to devise a filing system that makes sense even when several immigrants show up every few months, bearing new names and new identification papers.

"Health problems don't stop at the border," said Barbara DeBastiani, public health administrator for Sussex and Kent counties, adding, "To my way of thinking, these immigrants have enriched our community."

Helen Williams, who teaches English as a second language in the Georgetown Elementary School, agrees. Twelve students are presently enrolled for the fall semester, but when classes begin next week, she expects to teach nearly two dozen.

"I believe that I am teaching future Americans," she said. "That's why I am driven to do this."

A step closer

It is difficult to discern how this immigrant saga will play out. There are plans to improve the housing, to induce the poultry industry to hire a bilingual person to act as a liaison between the immigrants and the natives of Georgetown.

And in June, the townspeople edged a step closer to the new arrivals. Together, across the street from a 19th-century cemetery, they created a park with Hispanic-style mosaics made of boulders, paint and ceramic tile.

In Georgetown, 16 miles from anywhere, the immigrants put down their new Latino roots.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
61°