Day 38: Hard Truths and Surprises
ABOUT THIS SERIES Join Damien Cave and Todd Heisler as they travel up Interstate 35, from Laredo, Tex., to Duluth, Minn., chronicling how the middle of America is being changed by immigration.
REPORTED FROM THE END OF INTERSTATE 35
From the hot sun of Laredo, Tex., and the first on ramp for Interstate 35 to the chilly fog here in Duluth, Minn., at the highway’s end; from a city that’s 96 percent Hispanic and struggling to integrate new immigrants, to one that is 90 percent white and longing for the energy young foreigners bring — The Way North has come a long way.
The project began with an ambitious goal: to chronicle immigration’s impacts in the middle of America, at the local level where immigrants and established residents collide. Far from the gridlock of Washington, in the schools, churches and neighborhoods of a half-dozen states, how have new neighbors been getting along?
The results, discovered through 4,072 miles traveled up and around I-35, along with hundreds of interviews, are hard to categorize. Definitive conclusions may not arrive for decades as illegal (and legal) immigration continue to stir up strong emotions, from rage to romanticism. But along I-35 — ground zero for what experts describe as a historic demographic shift, with immigrants settling in new locations — certain patterns, hard truths and surprises emerged.
THE SMALL STUFF MATTERS
Who knew that a bottle of Bud Light — or a lack thereof — could be so important? Not Nathan Hill. When he turned an old Mexican bar on Austin’s rapidly gentrifying east side into a hipster country music venue, he failed to serve the beer of choice for the bar’s former regulars, a sometimes surly but loyal band of immigrant laborers. He never intended to offend them, but his beer selection of local microbrews struck them as exclusionary; they saw it as a sign that they were no longer wanted, and as a result, they stopped showing up.
In many other cities and towns, small slights and misunderstandings have made the challenge of integration even harder; or they’ve exemplified the struggle.
In north Wichita, for example, Francene Sharp found herself bothered by what she considered a lack of neighborliness. A former physical education teacher, she lives in a home her father built in the 1940s, in a neighborhood that has become predominantly Mexican. And while she remains friendly to all, she said she was bothered by a group of Mexican men living next door several years ago because they sometimes urinated outside when they had been drinking.
“This is America, we have indoor bathrooms,” she told them.
She said she also wished that another family down the block would abide by local laws that limit yard sales to two a month. “They’re out there every weekend,” she said. “That really bothers me.”
And in many ways, Austin and Wichita reflected a pattern of conflicting expectations. Established residents sought ways to make immigrants abide by laws regarding quality of life while immigrants — especially legal immigrants often wrongly thought to be here illegally — sought respect and a clear welcome.
Especially farther north in the Midwest, in regions previously settled by German immigrants, the clash between immigrants and longtime residents often involved the rules and routines of daily life, like parking. Several communities tussled over a tendency among Mexican immigrants to park on the lawns of the homes they bought or rented. But more broadly, such local struggles seemed to reflect what Mark Krikorian, an advocate for reduced immigration, has described as the basic challenge of integrating large numbers of immigrants in new places.
“What we need to teach is this basic insight that you are now part of this club and not part of another club,” he said. “It’s the idea that we’re all in the same boat.”
BRIDGE BUILDING REQUIRED
Cities and towns that have managed to reconcile their differences with immigrants, along with individual immigrants who have rapidly assimilated into American life, can all point to one important factor: bridge figures. People, that is, who are comfortable in both the immigrant and American worlds, and who translate and explain the frustrations, values and misunderstandings of each.
In Austin, it was Eddie Costilla, the owner of La Perla, a bar near what Mr. Hill calls his “honky tonk,” the White Horse. With Mr. Hill and others, Mr. Costilla explained the underlying concerns of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans being pushed out of east Austin by rising rents and upscale night life. Now the White Horse serves Bud Light, and it has given over Sunday afternoons to a Mexican band, Conjunto Los Pinkys.
In Minneapolis, Mohamud Noor, a candidate for state representative, spends most of his days trying to help Somali immigrants coming into the Somali social services agency where he works as interim director. One recent afternoon, that involved assisting a family seeking hospice care for a dying relative. The next morning, he met with parents concerned that the charter school their children attend lacks teachers and officials who speak Somali.
“People think I can fix everything,” Mr. Noor said, laughing. “A lot of times people come in and they want to fight something. I tell them no, we want to build something instead. It’s not about talking negatively; it’s about finding a solution.”
Mr. Noor, like many other immigrants who have become unofficial ambassadors for their communities, also emphasized the need for role models — immigrants who exemplify what is possible in the United States, making it obvious that effort and education will be rewarded.
Miguel Castillo, the principal of Antonio M. Bruni Elementary in Laredo, said he often tells students that he grew up like them, poor, an immigrant born in Mexico, but that he achieved because a friend helped him figure out how to go to college. “I try to provide them with the same kind of guidance,” he said, adding that he constantly tells them: “I could be looking at the next president of the United States, or an astronaut who goes to Mars.”
He added: “It takes a lot to break the poverty cycle. Once you go to college and graduate, that sets an example for the rest.”
DEEPER RIFTS REMAIN
But not all issues are minor, or so easy to reconcile with conversation or the example of a single high-achiever. Many Americans, young and old, Democrats and Republicans, including legal immigrants, would like to see more effort from immigrants — to learn English, to understand and participate in American democracy, to stem crime or gang membership in their communities.
Immigrants, meanwhile, would like to be treated as less of a threat, and to be more appreciated for the hard work they put in, whether building businesses or revitalizing neighborhoods that might otherwise be sliding into disrepair. Even those who lack legal status, like Ignacio, a roofer in Tulsa, often feel that they are doing everything they can to contribute.
“People ask why we don’t take long breaks,” he said. “Our culture is work.”
The debate over legalization for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally remains a delicate topic for nearly everyone. Immigrants, here legally and not, tend to see the inaction in Washington as an effort to keep them in the shadows and vulnerable to criminals and family separation through deportation.
Nonimmigrants (and some legal immigrants) argue that legitimizing lawbreakers will only bring more, and they point to the thousands of mothers and children showing up at the border from Central America now as proof of what happens when enforcement weakens.
But at the core of this dispute lie deeper anxieties about economics, competition for work and culture. Immigration has a long history of stirring up angst and dread. In a new book called “Culling the Masses,” David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook-Martín show that even before there were nation-states, people erected fences, walls and boundaries to keep out the unwanted.
And though the United States proclaims itself a nation of immigrants, lawmakers have been excluding certain ethnic groups since 1790, when Congress started passing laws that prevented Africans and Asians from becoming citizens on the grounds that they were inherently incapable of self-government.
“It’s often about resources, and not just economic resources,” said Mr. Cook-Martín, a sociology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. “It’s the resource of belonging. We want to be careful with that, and so we erect borders.”
For some, the economic slide of the past few years has intensified outrage as immigration has become woven into broader complaints about globalization and the way the economy works for the benefit of big businesses, at the expense of the middle and working class. Despite a wide range ofindependent studies showing that immigrants do not simply take American jobs — they also create jobs with their demand for goods and services — many people feel that immigrants are partly to blame for widening inequality and their own falling fortunes.
Shannon Woolard, 42, who sells T-shirts celebrating Irish and Czech heritage in Central Texas, for example, said her husband was now making about $35,000 as an oil and gas technician, a sharp decline from when he made around $100,000 as a construction worker before the housing bust. And while she acknowledged that the bad behavior of bankers contributed to his job loss, she said immigrants in the country illegally also made it harder for her husband to find work, by accepting lower wages and shipping off their earnings to relatives back home.
“On a I weekly basis I go into the convenience store and there are people sending money to Mexico,” she said. “The money is not staying here.”
Experts note that remittances sent to Mexico have been falling, with the economy still sputtering and as immigrants are becoming more settled here. And in many communities, a new attitude of accommodation has emerged with time, as people see immigrants raising families, and adding vibrancy with new businesses — in St. Paul, Minn., in Kansas City, Mo., and inDenison, Iowa, to name just a few.
The question now is whether people will look toward the positives that immigrants bring, or to the past and what they want to preserve. As William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said, the question remains: “To what extent do people in these places realize that these people, these immigrants, are a big part of their growth for the future?”