‘We’re coming here to pick the country up’ 

But some natives don’t want to be lifted.


Perceptions of The Immigrant vary, to say the least. Merchant and restaurateur Eduardo Martinez of Little Rock sees himself a few years ago — ambitious, hard-working, law-abiding, soon to become a pillar of the community.

Mayor Stephen Womack of Rogers sees people who drive up the crime rate, strain government services as well as the patience of the natives, and generally bear watching.

A curious coalition of hard-nosed businessmen and soft-hearted do-gooders sees someone who needs protection from ill-informed and ill-intentioned elected officials.

A fair number of inhospitable Arkansans see a brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking newcomer taking over a state that rightfully belongs to white-skinned Anglophones.

Gourmets see one who's given the state something it lacked — good Mexican restaurants, even in small towns.

To some, The Immigrant who doesn't have all the papers he's supposed to have is “undocumented.” To others, he's “illegal.”

All agree that The Immigrant is numerous and growing in number, and that in one way or another, he's changing the face of Arkansas. That's why he's been chosen as the Arkansas Times' Arkansan of the Year.

In Arkansas, most immigrants are Latinos. According to the state data center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the Latino population of Arkansas as of July 1, 2006, was 141,000, or 5 percent of the total Arkansas population of 2.8 million. Some sources estimate the Latino population as of Jan. 1, 2008, at 180,000 to 200,000.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation provides a statistical picture of immigrants in Arkansas. Half of them are from Mexico and another 20 percent are from elsewhere in Latin America. About half of them are undocumented (to use the gentler word), which means they don't meet the legal requirements for entry into the USA but they came anyway. Most came to find work that pays better than what was available in their home countries. They tend to settle on the western edge of the state, and around Little Rock in Central Arkansas. Four counties — Benton, Washington, Sebastian and Pulaski — account for almost two-thirds of Arkansas immigrants. Forty-two percent of the immigrants work in manufacturing — far more than in any other field of employment — and more than half of those with manufacturing jobs work at processing poultry or other meat. Many of them work for Tyson Foods, headquartered in Springdale. Tyson is one of the founders of a new group formed to block anti-immigrant legislation.

Cheap immigrant labor keeps manufacturers' costs down, according to the Rockefeller profile. Latino immigrants make less money than natives, an average of about $8 an hour compared to $11. “[T]he state's manufacturing wage bill would have been as much as $95 million higher [in 2004] if the same output were to be maintained without immigrant workers,” the profile says. “These labor cost savings help keep Arkansas's businesses competitive and are passed on in the form of lower prices to Arkansas and other U.S. consumers.”

Immigrant labor also keeps production up, according to the profile: “[W]ithout immigrant labor, the output of the state's manufacturing industry would likely be lowered by about $1.4 billion — or about 8 percent of the industry's $16.2 billion total contribution to the gross state product in 2004.”

Latino immigrants are substantially less educated than native Arkansans; over three-fourths of those aged 25 and older haven't graduated from high school. Latino children have poverty rates over twice as high as whites, but lower than blacks.


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