Gateway to America

by Benet Magnuson


In many ways, southwest Kansas is just as you’d imagine it. The land is wide open, and the wind constantly races across the feedlots, farms, and fields of new wind turbines. The largest town, Dodge City, has about 28,000 residents, and you’d have to drive for several hours down the two-lane highways to reach anything bigger. It is stifling hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter, and perfect in
the spring.

An hour west of Dodge is Garden City, population 27,000, where a repurposed car shop—modest and unassuming, like almost all of Garden City—acts as a gateway to America for immigrants from around the world. Inside the Access and Opportunity Center, students from Somalia, Ethiopia, Burma, China, South Korea, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, and elsewhere are hard at work learning to speak, read, and write English. They’ve been driven from their countries by war and deprivation, and they are eager to learn how to communicate in their new home.

The residents of this remote Kansas town speak more than 30 languages and dialects, but their reasons for choosing Garden City boil down to two: family and work. Some students followed citizen spouses; some came to reunite with family who immigrated earlier; one brought her children here to escape the gangs of Los Angeles, their first home in the U.S. And the majority were drawn to the town for one big reason: Tyson.

In 1980, 20 years after its infamous In Cold Blood killings, the tiny town of Holcomb—a few miles to the west of Garden City—became home to the world’s largest beef-packing plant. The plant—now owned by Tyson—and others built soon after, needed thousands of workers, and nearly all of the 18,000 residents in Garden City were already employed. So the meatpacking companies, like those in The Jungle, turned to immigrant labor to fill the hard, repetitive jobs in their plants. They first recruited immigrants from Vietnam, and then Mexico, then Guatemala and El Salvador, and more recently from Somalia and Burma.

The county, which was 82 percent white and 16 percent Mexican-American in 1980, is today 30 percent white (a category that now includes many Low-German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico) and 47 percent Latino. “The community had to decide if this was going to be a blessing or a curse. It was big, and it would swallow us if we didn’t work together,” Sister Janice Thorne told me in her Garden City living room. The ministry of Sisters Janice and Roserita focuses on the poor in Garden City, to whom they provide food boxes, transportation support, and other services. About half of the people they serve are immigrants.

By working together, the town has managed to embrace a level of diversity that has torn other communities apart, but the effort has had its critics. Sister Janice remembers one man approaching her outside the church, complaining that they had Spanish Masses now, but his ancestors never got German Masses. “I told him, ‘No, the Masses back then were in Latin all over the world and none of us could understand them,’ ” she said.

They’ve been driven from their countries by war and deprivation, and they are eager to learn how to communicate in their new home. 

There are so many fault lines that could fracture this small community: language, religion, color, customs, date of arrival, immigration status. And that big question—worthy or unworthy?—is never too far away. Some privately tell me that they have deep empathy for the refugees who have gone through trauma and been forced to give up their homeland, but they have mixed feelings about illegal immigrants. For others, the line between valid and invalid immigration is more complicated. “While living in the refugee camps in Thailand, I saw others also trying to flee Burma. To sneak into Bangkok, they would walk for four or five days,” Albert Kyaw, a political refugee from Burma, told me. “Sometimes, if they were caught, they would be shot.”

Michael Feltman, an immigration attorney in the area, has a front-row view on how fickle and arbitrary immigration status can be. Some young Mennonites recently sought his help to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. They should have qualified, but some employers’ attorneys had previously gotten the family H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Visas (for which they likely did not qualify). Now, because the young Mennonites technically had lawful status under the H-2A visas on the magic date of June 15, 2012, they are most likely not eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. “It makes me angry,” Feltman said. “Most of the people in my waiting room, I can’t help.”

Sister Janice and I drive out to a trailer park on the east edge of Garden City. The meatpacking company created the neighborhood when the sudden influx of workers in the 1980s created a housing crisis in the town. Although few Vietnamese still live in the park, some continue to refer to it by its nickname, “Little Saigon.” We are here to talk with Tricia, a woman Sister Janice has been helping with food boxes. In the past, when Tricia had job, she asked Sister Janice to stop delivering the boxes, since others would need the food more. More recently, though, Sister Janice found out that Tricia lost her job when her employer found out she was using a fake Social Security number, so she’s bringing the food again to help.

“I’m sad because I want to drive, I want to work legally, but there’s nothing you can do to get it,” Tricia said. Her husband is replacing the trailer’s floors, which, for now, are plywood. You get the feeling, sitting there, that the world is an awfully small place. “I’d like to drive my kids to their appointments, to take them to the park on the weekend, but I can’t get a driver’s license. I’d like to have a job so I can help my parents, get them more food, better food.”

Tricia moved to Garden City in 2005 to be near her sister who immigrated a few years before. She is grateful that she has not felt any racism in Kansas, and she tells me that her life here is much better than in Mexico. She hopes that Congress will act soon on immigration reform, but the miracle seems far away. “It’s going so slowly, and it’s so necessary for freedom and life. I don’t want my child in Mexico because I don’t want her to experience the violence there. Immigrants, we simply want to work for a better life for ourselves and our children.”

So many of the people I talk to here seem to be living a life on hold. Sister Janice introduced me to Lucy, a young woman who came to Kansas a year ago to escape the violence in Guatemala and to reunite with her family. Her parents, who had fled to Kansas years ago and left Lucy in the care of her grandmother, decided to pay a coyote to bring Lucy across the border. The man was angry the whole time, Lucy told me, and when a woman in the group hurt her ankle in the desert, they just left her. “At 3 a.m., the coyote ran. We were searching for him when Immigration showed up.” Agents with guns and bright lights surrounded the group, handcuffed them in a chain, and loaded them into the vans. The detention facility was very cold and they slept on the floor without mattresses and without enough blankets to go around. Since the facility was already beyond capacity, and Lucy was a low priority, the authorities decided to let her call her parents for the $250 bus fare to Garden City. She was to report back to Immigration in 30 days.

Since then, Lucy has reported regularly to the Immigration office in Wichita, three-and-a-half hours away. The first time, a woman met her in the lobby and took her papers; ten minutes later, she came back and told her to report back in two months with her birth certificate and school records. A few check-ins later, the Wichita office recommended that Lucy apply for asylum; it would be that or deportation.

So far, the asylum attorney has cost Lucy’s family $4,500, which they are paying in $150 monthly installments. Approval of the asylum application is anything but certain and will depend to some degree on which asylum officer and judge get assigned her case. I asked Lucy what she will do if she does not get asylum. “I’m not thinking about if I don’t get it,” she said. “I hope I get it, but who knows. If I do get it, I want to study to be a nurse. In the meantime, I’m studying English.”

It is the same carpe-diem response I hear from almost all of the undocumented students at the Access and Opportunity Center. “I’m not scared,” a student in the evening English class said when I ask her about the future. “I have today, not tomorrow. I want to be a psychology teacher. My future is big.”



When Alaide Mersmann moved to Kansas City, 350 miles northeast of Garden City, as a 14-year-old immigrant from Mexico in 2001, her English as a Second Language class was the only class held in her high school’s basement, but she didn’t mind. “I had seen the movies, so I was really excited. It was such a fancy school, with a nice cafeteria, and I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, this is just like Clueless,’ ” she told me as we sat in a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., where she is now in graduate school.

Having also grown up in Kansas, I know for a fact that our high schools are not just like the glamorous lives of the Beverly Hills Clueless teens. I must have had a skeptical look on my face, because Mersmann quickly explained: “Oh, I know now that everybody saw me as that weird foreign kid, but I didn’t know that back then. I didn’t know enough about the culture, so I just walked around and thought, ‘La la la, I’m great.’ ”

It was hard to be the new foreign kid who didn’t speak English, though. Simple homework assignments would take Mersmann hours as she looked up every word in the dictionary. She ended up doing twice as much math homework because she didn’t understand the teacher’s instructions to do only the even-numbered problems. But the perseverance paid off, and by her senior year, Mersmann was still earning A’s, even in AP English.

With graduation looming, Mersmann and her family began looking into college options and learned that, because she was undocumented, she would not be eligible for in-state tuition at Kansas universities. It was a crushing blow: The family could not afford out-of-state tuition, and Mersmann would also not be eligible for financial aid or state scholarships. Everyone they consulted had the discouraging advice that there just weren’t many options for students like Mersmann.

And then, by miracle, Kansas law changed just in time. On July 1, 2004, shortly after Mersmann graduated, Kansas became the eighth state to open up in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, so long as they graduated from a Kansas high school, had lived in the state for three years, and promised to become a citizen if it was ever a possibility. Now that she could afford to work her way through college, Mersmann rushed a last-minute application to the University of Kansas.

This was unwelcome news for some. In 2005, years before his fame as a primary author of Arizona’s SB 1070 law, Kris Kobach filed suit in federal court seeking an injunction against the Kansas law. He lost that lawsuit, but in 2010 he was elected Kansas Secretary of State, and on February 8, 2011, he and his allies were testifying in the Kansas House in support of a bill to repeal the in-state tuition law.

“In the hearing room, there were Minutemen from other states—anti-immigrant activists from other states—but I’m the one being attacked for not being from Kansas,” Mersmann told me. By then a successful college graduate, she was at the hearing to testify against repeal of the law that had given her a future. “I’m the one ‘not from here,’ but I am from here. Those guys are not from here.”

They first recruited immigrants from Vietnam, and then Mexico, then Guatemala and El Salvador, and more recently from Somalia and Burma.

Who is and who is not from here turned out to be a difficult question for the hearing to sort out. Testifying in support of repeal, Representative Connie O’Brien recounted watching a student in a financial aid line at a community college. “We didn’t ask the girl what nationality she was. We didn’t think that was proper,” she told the committee. “But we could tell by looking at her that she was not originally from this country.” Pressed by another representative on how she could tell the student was “illegal,” O’Brien said, “Well, she wasn’t black, she wasn’t Asian, and she had the olive complexion.”

The bill passed the Kansas House, but eventually failed in the Senate. After the Senate hearing, Mersmann reached out to Representative Caryn Tyson. “She had told the Senate committee she doesn’t talk to illegals, so I wanted to let her know that I was legal now, so she could talk to me, as a student who benefited from in-state tuition,” Mersmann, who had married a citizen in college and become a legal resident, told me. “She said it’s nothing personal, and then she said she had INS waiting outside for us.”



In 2006, the Tyson meatpacking plant in Emporia, an hour and a half southeast of Kansas City, expanded its operations. The new jobs brought a sudden influx of Somali refugees, and although the town has a long history of immigration—Germans, Irish, Mexicans, and, briefly, Bosnian refugees—many felt unprepared for the newcomers. “I was disappointed in the community,” Patty Gilligan,  human relations director for Emporia, told me.

The community had to decide if it was going to be a blessing or a curse.

“Ridiculous rumors started coming around,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe I have to sit down with you and explain why that’s impossible.’ I was disappointed so many were ready to believe the ugly rumors.” She listed the demographic flashpoints: The Somali refugees were Muslim, non-English speaking, from a country often in the news for terrorism and piracy, tall, thin, and black. “I can’t help but think their skin color had something to do with it,” Gilligan said, pointing out that the Bosnian refugees earlier were also Muslim and considered too boisterous by many in the community, but that the rumors only started when the Somalis moved to town.

When the Somali men began to gather for chitchat at a restaurant one of them had bought, questions spread through the town about what they were doing, what they were talking about, what they were up to. “There was a rumor that they were sitting in front of the Dairy Queen with machetes. I still don’t know what all that was about. We never had real problems with violence. A rumor about a huge fight in a parking lot turned out to be one guy helping another get into the passenger seat,” Gilligan said. “There were lots of rumors about sanitation.”

Like Garden City, Emporia created a working group of city agencies and community leaders to find ways to help the new immigrants settle into the community. “The Resettlement Alliance would talk about the rumors and get the word out to the community—that’s not correct, stop the rumors. We held a community meeting with a facilitator,” Gilligan said. “The one problem, the only real problem, we never solved was having a driving school to work with them. They were terrible drivers. They had to put a steel beam in to protect the restaurant after it was driven into three or four times.”

Then, suddenly, they were gone. In 2008, Tyson cut more than half of its positions at the Emporia plant and helped the Somali refugees relocate. “It was really sad; they moved right when everything was starting to work,” Gilligan said. She has an expression—disappointed but resigned—that is familiar to anyone who grew up in the Midwest and watched friends and family move away to opportunities in cities far away, “I wonder what the community would look like now if they’d stayed.”

Some of the Somalis moved out to Garden City to work at the Tyson plant in Holcomb. One Garden City resident (who asked that I not use her name) told me the general perception in the town is that Tyson will do the least possible for the city, but people are afraid to pressure them to do more because Tyson will leave, devastating the town. “They talk about giving to United Way, but that money comes from the workers, not the company,” she said. When I asked others in the town about Tyson, my questions often seemed to provoke uncomfortable fidgeting, and otherwise blunt people started to choose their words very carefully. I called Tyson to request an interview, and I got an email from the public relations manager asking to know more about my story and what sort of information I was looking for. I emailed back a question asking for more information about what programs Tyson supports in the community, but I did not receive a response.

The students at the Access and Opportunity Center, who attend the morning English class before heading to a long shift at Tyson, were willing to tell me more. “It is hard work,” one student said. “You wear a heavy, metal apron, metal gloves, for eight hours on your feet.

“The speed is too fast. If you need help, they shout at you. If you say, ‘I have an injury,’ they say, ‘Go back to work.’ Sometimes, they fire you.”

The problems the students mention sound familiar. The debilitating effects of meatpacking jobs have been extensively studied, and last September, a group of 15 civil rights organizations petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue new rules to slow down the extreme speeds of production lines in order to “minimize the severe and systemic risks faced by workers in the meatpacking and poultry industries, particularly the prevalence of serious and crippling musculoskeletal disorders.” Meanwhile, the United States Department of Agriculture is considering implementing new regulations that would actually increase line speed in poultry plants.

These dangerous working conditions have convinced Professor Don Stull at the University of Kansas that an expanded guest-worker program would be a very bad solution for our immigration system. He has studied the meatpacking industry, and the boomtowns it’s created across rural America, for 30 years. “A guest-worker program makes these employees very vulnerable. If you piss off your employer, they put you on a bus, and they don’t bring you back next year,” he explained. “Meatpacking companies would love that.”

Patty Gilligan in Emporia thinks the low wages and dangerous workplace conditions are keeping non-immigrants out of the meatpacking plants. “You hear people say these are jobs Americans don’t want to do, but I think that’s insulting. A lot of Americans would work in these plants,” she said. “But you used to be able to pay for college by working in the plant. That’s what I did. Now the wages are too low. It used to be three times the minimum wage.” People who have other options won’t risk the plants’ dangerous work conditions, especially when they won’t earn a high enough wage.

“We were all immigrants here at some point. You have to make room for people somewhere,” Gilligan said. “People try to blow off our immigration history, or argue, ‘Yes, but this time…’ No, this time’s not really different.”


Editor’s note: Names of some of the immigrants in this story have been changed.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 8, on April 15, 2014.