HISPANIC INFLUX GIVES LIBERAL A NEW FACE
IMMIGRATION IN KANSAS
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2007
Section: MAIN NEWS
BY BRENT D. WISTROM, THE WICHITA EAGLE
LIBERAL – Ignacio Rivas stands at his paletas cart chatting with another guy who also pushes frozen fruit treats on a three-wheel cart. It’s about 7 p.m. in downtown Liberal, a town proud of its Yellow Brick Road and annual Fat Tuesday pancake race.
But as Rivas tilts his straw cowboy hat down and pushes across the city’s main drag before sundown, the scene looks like one out of Mexico.
|Perhaps a third to half of the independent business storefronts advertise in Spanish. Most others note that they habla espanol.
This snapshot reflects what’s happening in Liberal – the heart of the first county in Kansas to officially become more than 50 percent Hispanic.
But Liberal’s story is about more than percentages – and nearly everyone believes the town is 60 or 70 percent Hispanic anyway.
Liberal’s recent history is about changing cultures. Police officers calling translators at crime scenes. Old white men sipping coffee and explaini ng how bad things have gotten. A middle-aged father here illegally, living scared with his child’s future on the line. Money being earned and sent out of the country. Families dividing and reuniting. Students and teachers struggling and improving.
Hard work and hard lives.
‘Ain’t the town I grew up in’
Six men with coffees and waters sat at conjoined tables in the middle of the diner on the west edge of town.
They bantered while CNN looped Thursday’s news on both sides of the Chuck Wagon restaurant.
Jesse Russell, a 65-year-old former Liberal High quarterback, jumped at a question about the city’s changing demographics. He’s lived here his whole life.
“The town went from a clean town to a filthy town,” he said.
His friends, all longtime residents, agreed as he talked about needing two liability insurance policies because of all the uninsured drivers and not understanding what Spanish-speakers are saying, and the stress that kids who can’t speak English put on the schools.
His town, state and country are changing.
Kansas’ Hispanic population grew from 7 percent in 2000 to about 9 percent last year, according to Census estimates, which may or may not include those here illegally.
In Sedgwick County, the Hispanic population grew from 8 percent in 2000 to 10 percent last year.
Every county in Kansas – even those that are losing population – saw an increase in Hispanic population since 2000.
But counties like Seward, which includes Liberal, have relatively low populations, so the change is more pronounced and probably will be as long as there are labor-intensive jobs in the area.
The Hispanic population in Seward County has grown from 42 percent in 2000 to about 51 percent last year.
Its non-Hispanic white population fell from 50 percent to 42 percent in the same time period.
Several longtime residents – legal and illegal – said the Hispanic populati on has been growing steadily since about 25 years ago when there were maybe a few hundred Hispanics in a tight community. But, they said, in the past five to seven years the growth has been most noticeable – both in the number of Hispanics and the businesses that advertise in Spanish.
“We’ve been dealing with it for 20 or 30 years,” said Shannon Francis, chair of the Seward County Commission. “Change is always difficult.”
The Liberal school district’s 4,325 students are now 67 percent Hispanic. The schools have English as a Second Language programs and started dual-lan guage courses at McDermott Elementary two years ago. The high school soccer team is as popular – sometimes more – than its football team.
The school district and community sponsors recently spent $300,000 on a new lighted soccer field with irrigation next to the high school.
“This ain’t the town I grew up in,” Russell, the former quarterback, said, shaking his head.
No one knows how many people of any race are in Liberal illegally. Many people – citizens and illegal immigrants alike – here estimate that at least half of the Hispanics lack legal residency.
Why that matters depends on whom you ask.
Russell figures many of the Hispanics he sees are illegal, and he doesn’t think they should have the same rights as someone who is in the United States legally.
“We spend $10 billion on Iraq,” he said. “We should spend $10 billion sending them home.”
A woman who would give only the name Maria because she’s here illegally and fears being deported or prosecuted said sending illegal immigrants home would be a mistake.
She has lived in Liberal nine years since emigrating from Mexico.
“We do work they don’t want to do,” she said.
In a drive though town, you might find Jose del Real, a 46-year-old legal resident wearing a city of Liberal safety vest as he picks up litter in a muddy ditch. You might see a crew of Hispanic men renovating the exterior of a motel. And hundreds of Hispanics finishing their shift of slaughtering cows or cutting meat.
Maria said she that she doesn’t work in meatpacking, but she said that she gets a paycheck that is taxed like anyone else’s and that she’s paying Social Security on a number that isn’t hers.
Unlike places like California that are known for having a lot of day laborers working in agricultural fields, Liberal’s major employers are nearly all government or food industry.
Residents and employees say the town’s largest employer, National Beef, requires documentation. The meatpacking plant has 3,500 employees.
Many people here grab their wrists when describing the work of cutting apart cows. It can be grueling work, several employees said, but it offers a good wage.
Calls to National Beef for comment weren’t returned.
Another unknown is how much of the money immigrants make stays in Liberal – or at least the United States.
Mario Rodriguez Hernandez is one of about 10 customers a small store in downtown Liberal sees each day who wants to wire money – usually to Mexico or Guatemala.
Like many people, he said he’s decided life in Liberal is tranquilo, or tranquil. He sends about half his wages to his family in Guatemala each week. It helps pay for medicine, a car and a home for his wife and kids.
He would like to bring them into the United States, but they do not have documentation and he thinks it’s too dangerous for them to try to cross illegally.
In 2003, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated money flow from the United States to Latin America and the Caribbean was about $30 billion that year, making it the largest single remittance channel in the world.
Many succeed, but some immigrants who come to Liberal can’t find the work they’re looking for, said Dora Ponce, a community developer with United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries.
Her agency has offices in Liberal, Garden City, Dodge City and Ulysses and, between the offices, 10,000 people of all races come for donated food, clothing and furniture.
About 500 people were helped at their clinic, which offers basic care subsidized by federal grants.
“It’s very hard to be in another country,” she said.
But she said many people want to call Liberal home and contribute to the community.
Connie Rodriguez and her friend Marivel Rodriguez pushed overloaded grocery carts out of Liberal’s only Wal-Mart earlier this week.
They each said they’re here for opportunities for them and their husbands and for a better future for their children.
Connie said the town is peaceful. “In other places, there’s more racism,” she said, loading the tail of an SUV. “There’s not much here.”
Translations and assumptions
Lt. Dennis Mulanax, 42, has been trying to adapt to the city’s demographic shift since he joined the police force in 1989.
He remembers officers talking about getting $25 for every illegal immigrant they found during their duties.
“If we were to do that now, we wouldn’t have time for anything else,” he said.
Now police understand the importance of good relationships, he said. Police know they need to have enough trust to get witnesses to step forward even if they aren’t legal residents.
That’s especially hard when the department has only 32 of its allotted 40 positions filled and none of the officers are bilingual, Mulanax said. At least 10 more officers are needed to keep up with crime, but it seems every police department in the country is short, Mulanax said.
Property crime has fueled Liberal’s rise to the No. 2 crime index in the state. Wyandotte County, which includes Kansas City, is No. 1.
Mulanax blames a breakdown of moral values and violent, sex-filled media. He does not blame Hispanics – legal or illegal.
“I don’t think the problems we’re having here have anything to do with culture,” he said.
But there are problems he can link to immigration. Police busted a downtown video store that was making fake IDs after someone confessed to having bought a “federal” driver’s license (which doesn’t exist) for $300.
And, recently, Wal-Mart called after finding a returned printer that had several copies of Social Security cards still in it. They’re still investig ating that – but it might soon add to a growing list of identity theft crimes.
“This is the melting pot,” Mulanax said. “I’m all for somebody wanting to improve their life. I just want people to do it the right way.”
A seed for the future
As Liberal’s school district nears 70 percent Hispanic enrollment, the administrators acknowledge there are some growing pains. But, they say, they’re making progress – even as they continue taking on newly immigrated students every year.
In 2006, 66 percent of kids graduated. “It’s certainly not where we want to be,” Assistant Superintendent Lance Stout said.
The district’s goal is to show all its students – regardless of race or legal residency – that there is a reason to graduate, a reason to go to college and that there are careers out there beyond meatpacking. They’ve brought in prominent Hispanics, including former Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans, to show them they can succeed even at high levels.
But many times kids get lured away from school by jobs that can help their family or just buy them a cooler car or truck.
“We’re proud of our community,” the district’s Superintendent Vernon Welch said. “And everybody is our community.”
Brian Solis, a 13-year-old who moved from Tijuana, Mexico, to Liberal two years ago, sat at his desk staring at the questions on the overhead projecti on.
Eight other kids did the same, scribbling answers to questions about “Big Brother, Little Brother,” a book for 4- to 8-year-olds by Penny Dale.
One of the questions is “Who’s crying?” Another reads, “What is big brother eating?”
Several of the kids ace the test on computers set up on the classroom’s perimeters.
Despite little experience in the United States, most of the seventh- and eighth-graders in Larry Wetzbarger’s English as a Second Language class learn quickly, but they need to start with simple books.
Brian said he moved to Liberal with his 23-year-old brother a couple of years ago after his brother found a job through some friends. They’re both here legally, he said. Now Brian helps out at a local store and makes a little money while his brother works full time at a bakery.
Brian said he wants to become a police officer after he graduates. And, he said, he wants to do it here in Liberal.
Why a police officer?
“I love the action,” he said, grinning and shrugging at the same time.
Next: The unknown
Manuel, a construction worker who wouldn’t give his real name, said he came here illegally to give his family a better life than he could in Zacatecas, a city of 122,000 in central Mexico.
But shortly after he arrived, his daughter complained of a headache one day. It got worse and they rushed her to the hospital where, he said, doctors said she had a brain hemorrhage. She continues receiving treatment in Wichita under a state program that subsidizes hospital bills.
If he gets deported, he said, his daughter might not get the same quality of health care.
He’s especially alarmed by the Bush administration’s recent announcement that the Social Security Administration will start requiring more stringent identity verification from employers.
Like millions across the nation, he worries it might end his American dream.
Dave Harrison, a city commissioner, said he doesn’t know what might happen if federal authorities crack down more on employers.
But, he said, the future of the city depends on educating its children and attracting new industries that aren’t necessarily labor-intensive.
“I don’t sense racism,” he said, having lunch with friends at the Pancake House. “There’s a criminal element with them just like with us.”
He called Liberal a “work in progress,” but said it has a bright future.
In fact, another food company is considering building nearby. Last fall, Smithfield Beef Group Inc. and ContiGroup Cos. announced an agreement to build a beef processing plant in Texas County, Oklahoma – a city 20 miles southwest of Liberal.
It is expected to employ 2,500 or more people. It’s outside of the city but may bring more jobs to the area’s economy – and more migrant workers as well.
“I think some people adapt well to change,” Harrison said as his lunch arrived. “And others don’t.”
Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or email@example.com.
By the numbers: 9%
Of Kansas’ population is Hispanic
OF SEWARD COUNTY’S POPULATION IS HISPANIC
Census estimates of the growth in the Hispanic populations of Sedgwick, Butler and Harvey counties.
The following appeared on KANSAS.COM only
New population estimates
Hispanics made up more than 10 percent of Sedgwick County’s population last year for the first time because of a steady increase since the 2000 Census. Census estimates show that Butler and Harvey counties also have seen signific ant growth in the number of Hispanic residents.
Sedgwick County 2006 population Percent of total Percent change since 2000
White 348,709 74.1% 0.5%
Hispanic 48,388 10.3 32.9
Black 42,760 9.1 4.2
American Indian 4,261 0.9 -6.0
Asian 17,660 3.8 15.5
Other 9,117 1.9 6.3
Total 470,895 100.0 4.0
Butler County 2006 population Percent of total Percent change since 2000
White 58,692 92.9% 5.3%
Hispanic 1,605 2.5 20.1
Black 946 1.5 16.1
American Indian 597 0.9 16.4
Asian 347 0.5 45.8
Other 960 1.5 14.1
Total 63,147 100.0 6.2
Harvey County 2006 population Percent of total Percent change since 2000
White 29,090 86.5% 0.2%
Hispanic 3,138 9.3 19.8
Black 568 1.7 11.8
American Indian 158 0.5 6.8
Asian 216 0.6 27.1
Other 473 1.4 20.4
Total 33,643 100.0 2.4
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
See a gallery of additional photos attached to this story at Kansas.com.