Union Tribune

February 17, 2003

Changing face of rural America
Immigrant Latino baby boom brings economic, cultural adjustments


GEORGETOWN, Del. Behind the wheel of her gray van, Sister Rosa Alvarez launched into her work on a cold winter morning: shuttling a dozen pregnant women to prenatal examinations in this small town of wide lawns and big front porches.

Former Mayor Bob Ricker calls his hometown "a Mayberry kind of place," with a population of fewer than 6,000 people. But the women didn't have Mayberry kinds of names. Herlinda, Antonieta, Guadalupe, Juana and the others were drawn here from Guatemala and Mexico by jobs in the huge Perdue Farms chicken-processing plant at the edge of town.

Sister Alvarez, an energetic 73-year-old Carmelite nun, estimates that in the past eight years she has provided transportation and translation for 900 Latina mothers.

"They are my family," she said. "The children call me grandma."

Sister Alvarez's "grandchildren" are part of an immigrant baby boom taking place in rural communities across America.

While much attention has been paid to the rising number of Latino births in Los Angeles, Phoenix and other cities, the same thing is happening on a smaller scale in towns in Arkansas, Indiana and other states where Latino immigration was practically unheard of until the 1990s.

In Georgetown, immigrants were less than 2 percent of the population in 1990. Thirteen years later, more than one in three residents is from Latin America.

"The demographic change in rural America over the last 15 to 20 years is the single most important development shaping the future of rural America," said University of California Davis professor Phil Martin, a leading immigration authority.

Like many Georgetown residents, Ricker at first was puzzled by the appearance of so many Hispanic immigrants in his town. He assumed they would move on, like the migrant workers who arrive every summer to pick tomatoes and melons.

Now Ricker, an affable man who as mayor caused a ruckus by saying the immigrants were dragging down Georgetown's quality of life, is a conciliator. He said the town is slowly acknowledging that its future has a Hispanic hue.

He said the rise in Latino births has made something clear: "They are here to stay. Some people in town are dead set against them, but I say we should welcome them as long as they're willing to work their way into our society. There's a lot that depends on how these immigrant kids do."

That goes for the whole country.

Immigrant children, and the children of immigrants, now constitute one-fifth of the U.S. population 18 and under. In California, more than half the newborns are Latino. In Los Angeles County, the figure is 63 percent.

Hispanics represent the bulk of the immigrants legal and illegal who arrive at the rate of more than 1.3 million a year.

That pace is expected to continue, powered primarily by laws intended to reunite immigrant families and the press of illegal immigration.

Demand for low-wage labor and a wink-and-nod attitude among federal authorities beyond the border have amplified the boom.

UC Davis' Martin notes that the newcomers are entering a post-industrial economy far different from the industrializing America that received the last big immigrant wave a century ago.

"So the real question is, what does starting near the bottom economic rung mean for immigrants now?" Martin said. "Above all, what does it mean for their children?"

High Latino dropout and teen pregnancy rates compound the problem, stoking fears of an emerging Hispanic underclass.

Some immigration scholars warn that many young Latinos may be trapped in "downward assimilation," with parents struggling to hold families together against social, economic and generational pressures that threaten to pull them apart.

Putting down roots
Most of Sister Alvarez's passengers tell the same basic story.

After riding buses the length of Mexico and hiking behind smugglers through the Arizona desert, they settled in ramshackle Georgetown neighborhoods near the railroad tracks, or in trailer parks hidden in the piney woods beyond.

Many of them once dreamed of saving some money and heading home to build a house or buy some land and maybe livestock. To maximize their savings, they crowded into apartments and houses, two or three families sharing space intended for one.

Then they began having babies.

"There's a big shift when they become parents," said Allison Burris, who works with Sister Alvarez in a private social service organization called La Esperanza.

"Then their decisions are based on what is best for the kids. They start putting down roots. They remember that back home they're four hours from a hospital, and kids have to walk two hours to school. They know there's no future for their children there."

More than one-third of the youngsters in grades K-2 at Georgetown Elementary School are Latino. While most are Guatemalan, the number of Mexicans is growing fast.

One of the pregnant women on Sister Alvarez's pickup list was a 25-year-old from Mexico who had overstayed a visa that allowed her to work as a Chesapeake Bay crab picker.

Another expectant Mexican mother, who had become weary of clerking at a pharmacy for $20 a week, crossed the border illegally to join an uncle and aunt who had received amnesty under a 1986 federal law.

Many of the early Guatemalan immigrants became legal residents after receiving political asylum because of their country's brutal civil war.

But while the war stopped in 1996, the poverty continued. Guatemalans are still arriving, following networks of siblings, cousins and friends here.

Newcomers can buy phony documents enabling them to get work in the polleras, as the chicken plants are called.

"You can get a Social Security card easy," said a 40ish Mexican named Jose, munching a taco at one of the half-dozen markets or cafes immigrants have opened near downtown.

He said a Puerto Rican birth certificate highly prized because it indicates U.S. citizenship can be had for a few hundred dollars.

The workers have little fear of being detected because, since the late 1990s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has backed off the work-site sweeps it once used to round up illegals. The INS decision was considered an attempt to placate congressmen whose business constituents complained about the loss of workers.

"It has been nice and quiet around here lately," Sister Alvarez said approvingly.

The promise of dollars sustains the workers through the drudgery of eviscerating, slicing, deboning and packing. Abigail de Leon said that every night a 12-man crew hangs 80,000 live chickens on a belt that takes them to have their heads sliced off.

"One time I asked a woman if she liked her job," recalled social worker Burris.

"She said, 'We're not like you Americans. We come from a place where there are no jobs. We like the security of knowing we have a job. All I have to do is show up, do what I'm told, and I get a paycheck every week.' "

Upward mobility
Integration Dimas Zunon, 35, put in a decade with the chickens. When he'd saved enough money, he opened a store geared toward immigrant tastes in clothes, videotapes and snacks. It occupies a converted home across the street from St. Paul's Episcopal Church and graveyard, where the Anglo names on the oldest headstones have been erased by time.

Zunon said that when he arrived in Georgetown in 1989, the Hispanic population was 14 Guatemalans and a few Mexicans.

The 1990s were a decade of awkward adjustment. The fire department urged residents not to disarm smoke detectors set off by frying tortillas. Police struggled to recite Miranda warnings in Spanish.

Like so much in American society with its emphasis on individualism and its expectation that immigrants show an up-by-their-bootstraps initiative, the task of integrating the newcomers receives little government support.

Much of that work has fallen to La Esperanza, which is constantly scrambling for funds to provide transportation to hospitals, legal help, English classes, counseling for abused women and advice on navigating U.S. society.

Immigrants pour through the doors at the rate of 500 a month. An equal number seek help via telephone, calling from all over southern Delaware and other parts of the Delmarva Peninsula, which stretches into Maryland and Virginia.

The needs, above all, concern the children.

Last month, a single mother who had been denied political asylum after living in Georgetown for more than a decade asked for help. She needed to find legal guardians for her two U.S.-born children just in case the INS showed up at her home to deport her.

Jerry Kammer: (202) 737-7681; jerry.kammer@copleydc.com