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A Midwestern Meatpacking Town Welcomes Immigrants

Dec 11, 2013
Originally published on December 11, 2013 7:42 pm

Meatpacking plants used to be located in urban centers like Kansas City and Chicago. Over the past few decades, many plants have moved to rural Midwestern towns, which have seen a huge influx of immigrants as a result. Yesterday, we reported on tiny Noel, Mo., which has struggled to help assimilate the newcomers who work at a large poultry plant. Today, we have this report from Garden City, Kan., a meatpacking town that embraces its new cultures.

The chemistry lab at Garden City Community College is buzzing, and Binh Hua and My Nguyen are at the front of the class. The two young women wear protective goggles, their long black hair pulled into ponytails, as they wait for the professor to bring the class to order.

Both of these Vietnamese 18-year-olds have benefited from the beef industry since their parents moved here to work in the huge Tyson Foods plant. Now they dream of computer and medical degrees as their parents do the hard work of turning animals into beef at a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town. Both students graduated from high school in just three years, and they're trying to earn associate degrees by next year.

"We really like to graduate early because we think high school wasn't challenging enough and we were looking for challenging courses and stuff," Hua says.

"And we get a head start in college," Nguyen adds.

Hua and Nguyen represent the newest chapter in an age-old American story: Immigrants have always worked in the meatpacking plants, lured by steady — if hard — work. Since 1980, when the first slaughterhouse was built in Garden City, Kan., the newcomers have doubled the population to roughly 30,000 and turned a white cow town into a cultural crossroads where minorities are now the majority. But Garden City's response differed from many in the rural Midwestern towns: City leaders decided early on that they would embrace these newcomers.

"The vision was: We have these people here; are we going to accept them as a blessing or are we going to consider them a curse?" asks Levita Rohlman, who was part of a faith-based group that helped usher in Garden City's new wave of immigrants.

Joining many Mexican-Americans here in the early 1980s were Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians. And then came immigrants from South America. Now it's Somali and Burmese refugees who are settling.

Abdifatah Abdullahi is a 25-year-old Somali who landed in Garden City almost a year ago. He works the second shift at Tyson, is a part-time Somali translator at the local refugee center and attends college. Abdullahi says it should be obvious why he came here: "To look for a better life and to look for a better education. That's what I come to look for here."

What he and others found was a large network of social services: food banks, shelters, English classes and job assistance.

Take one of Garden City's "newcomer" classes, located at a local elementary school. In this class, kids are temporarily separated from the rest of the school so they can try to assimilate into their new surroundings. Many were born in refugee camps and have never seen basic plumbing, let alone a pencil. And some of them are simply hungry. The starting pay at the Garden City Tyson plant is $13.50 an hour, but it's difficult to support a family on that. Three-quarters of the students get free or reduced-price lunch, and requests for food stamps are up 230 percent in just the past five years.

Garden City's refugee and immigrant population is expected to grow, as Tyson continues recruiting more workers. And those who arrive here will get lots of help and a hand up toward a better life.

Back at the chemistry lab, Binh Hua says that she's doing OK in the class and that she doesn't leave the library until it closes every night at 10 p.m. Even then, she still gets home before her parents, who work the late shift at the Tyson plant, her father on the hot, bloody kill floor, her tiny mother using a razor-sharp knife to cut the hulks of beef.

"My mom and dad just always said, 'I'm doing this for you,' " Hua says.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The meatpacking industry and large slaughterhouses were once a feature of cities, such as Kansas City and Chicago. These days, the work is found well outside big urban centers. And some small Midwestern towns have seen a huge influx of immigrants seeking those jobs. Yesterday, we reported on tiny Noel, Missouri, which has struggled to accept the newcomers who work at a large poultry plant.

Well, today, Peggy Lowe reports from Garden City, Kansas, a meatpacking town that has embraced its new cultures.

PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: The chemistry lab at Garden City Community College is buzzing today and Binh Hua and My Nguyen are at the front of the class. The two young women are wearing protective goggles, their long black hair pulled into ponytails, as they wait for the professor to bring the class to order.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Alright, Busters. Good morning and I hope its 8:59 so we'll go ahead and start the class.

LOWE: These Vietnamese 18-year-olds don't look like Broncbusters or Busters, the college mascot. But they've both benefited from the beef industry since their parents moved here to work in the huge Tyson plant. Now they dream of computer and medical degrees, as their parents do the brutally hard work of turning animals into beef at a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town. Both students graduated from high school in just three years and they're trying to earn associate degrees by next year.

BINH JUA: We'd really like to graduate early 'cause we think high school wasn't challenging enough. And we were looking for challenging courses and stuff.

MY NGUYEN: And we get a head start in college.

(LAUGHTER)

NGUYEN: So, yeah.

LOWE: Hua and Nguyen represent the newest chapter in an age-old American story. Immigrants have always worked in the meatpacking plants, lured by steady if hard work. Since 1980, when the first slaughterhouse was built here, the newcomers have doubled the population to roughly 30,000 and turned a white cow town into a cultural crossroads, where minorities are now the majority.

But Garden City's response differed from many in the rural Midwestern towns. City leaders here decided early on that they would embrace these newcomers.

LEVITA ROHLMAN: The vision was, we have these people here, are we going to accept them as a blessing or are we going to consider them a curse?

LOWE: That's Levita Rohlman, who was part of a faith-based group that helped in that early collective decision.

Joining many Mexican-Americans here in the early 1980s were Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians. Then came immigrants from South America. Now it's Somali and Burmese refugees who are settling here.

ABDIFATAH ABDULLAHI: My name is Abdifatah Abdullahi and I live in Garden City here.

LOWE: Abdullahi is a 25-year-old Somali who landed here almost a year ago. He works the second shift at Tyson. He also works part-time as a Somali translator at the local refugee center and he attends college. Abdullahi says it should be obvious why he came here.

ABDULLAHI: To look for a better life and to look for a better education. That's what I come to look for here.

LOWE: And what he and others found was a large network of social services - food banks, shelters, English classes and job assistance.

TEACHER AND STUDENTS: If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

STUDENTS: If you're happy and you know, it clap your hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

LOWE: In this newcomer class at a local elementary school, kids are temporarily separated from the rest of the school so they can try to assimilate into their new surroundings. Many were born in refugee camps and have never seen basic plumbing, let alone a pencil. And some of them are simply hungry. The starting pay at the Tyson plant is 13.50 an hour, but it's difficult to support a family on that. Three-quarters of the students get free or reduced-price lunch and requests for food stamps are up 230 percent in just the last five years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, today's lab involves Bunsen burners.

LOWE: Back at the chemistry lab, Binh Hua says she's doing OK in the class and she doesn't leave the library until it closes every night at 10. Even then, she still gets home before her parents, who work the late shift at the Tyson plant - her father on the hot, bloody kill floor, her tiny mother using a razor-sharp knife to cut the hulks of beef.

JUA: My mom and dad just always said that I'm doing this for you.

LOWE: Garden City's refugee and immigrant population is expected to grow, as Tyson continues recruiting more workers. And those who arrive here will get lots of help and a hand up towards a better life.

For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe.

BLOCK: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a Public Radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.