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click to enlarge ON THE JOB: In Arkansas, Latino men have the highest employment rate (81 percent) of any group.
  • ON THE JOB: In Arkansas, Latino men have the highest employment rate (81 percent) of any group.

My mother's family arrived in Arkansas on foot shortly after the Civil War. After returning from the war, my ancestor found his home destroyed near Charlotte, N.C., and, along with his family started walking west. They walked for two years, making a crop along the way and finally stopped in northern Pulaski County because it reminded them of the land around Charlotte.

There's no record, but I hope our dusty bunch got better treatment from their new neighbors than Arkansas's recent Latino immigrants are getting from some of theirs.

Rep. Rick Green, a Republican legislator from Van Buren, has made something of a career over the last year bashing immigrants. He has been joined by Rep. Jon Woods of Springdale and Sen. Ruth Whitaker of Cedarville, also Republicans, who complain that Arkansas is “lagging behind” other states in passing anti-immigrant laws.

The taxes being paid, the jobs being created, the work that is getting done, all argue against the immigrant bashers. But that really isn't their argument anyway. They are talking about people who are different from them. If this was 1960 they'd be talking about blacks. Truth is, if Arkansas suddenly got 150,000 new English residents, half of them without documents, the main complaints you'd hear would be about their cooking.

Advocates for rounding up and deporting all undocumented workers in Arkansas will usually add that they have nothing against legal immigrants. They just want these bad apples to get in line and wait their turn like everyone else. The problem is, for a working class Mexican with no family here and little money, there is no line. It does not exist. It's a myth. He could wait a hundred years and he is still not going to be admitted legally to the United States. He doesn't meet the criteria. Meanwhile, in order to avoid violating the visa regulations of the United States, he is expected sit back and passively watch his children become stunted by malnutrition and lack of health care and in some instances die. People who are willing to give up everything and gamble their lives on the prospect that somehow they can rescue themselves and their families from this bleakness are the kind of people we want here. They are a self-selecting group who refuse to settle for the hand that life has dealt them. They are the people who are going to work harder, sacrifice for their kids, seize opportunity and create wealth — if we will just get out of their way.

For most of history, Arkansawyers have played the role that we assign today to the Latino population. During the 1930's when many of our grandparents and great-grandparents had little to eat but mineral-rich Sebastian County clay, they joined the Okies and headed for California as penniless immigrants. There, many were rounded up by California State Police and National Guardsmen and put into camps or turned back into the desert at the Arizona border. Our people packed the Dixie Highway to Detroit and took the Chicago slaughterhouse jobs that today are performed by Spanish-speaking immigrants. We dishonor our own ancestors when we treat our new Latino neighbors with the contempt and disdain that was shown our own people in years past. Where is our memory?

And where is our Bible?

God, it turns out, has quite a bit to say about immigrants and Rep. Green and his ilk had better listen up. If they were reading their Bible instead of thumping it, they would know that Leviticus (19:33-34) says “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Rev. Gordon Garlington, the pastor at Park Hill Presbyterian in North Little Rock, reminded me that one of the themes in Deuteronomy is the warning that when a people finally arrive at the land of milk and honey, they not forget the God who helped them get there and that they not grow prosperous and proud while becoming callous to the poor and the weak.

“Sometimes,” Garlington said, “we forget that we are citizens of the U.S. not because we have been more virtuous, or more deserving or harder working, but because in years past this country held its arms wide open to waves of immigrants, and because ‘by the grace of God' we have been born into families that were fortunate to be among those waves of immigrants.”

Arkansas has always been a land of immigrants. During the 1880's when there were no laws against anyone coming to this country (except for the Chinese), Little Rock had not one but two German language daily newspapers and The German Bank sat where the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is today. Today those immigrant institutions are almost forgotten and the children of those immigrants have forgotten where they came from. They elect politicians who enact petty, harassing legislation calculated to do nothing but add to the misery of the latest wave of desperate, hopeful people to wash up on our land.

We now have state and federal laws that prevent undocumented workers from getting a driver's license, which means they can't get car insurance, which means that when they hit your car on their way to work, it's you that's out of luck. And then, when the driver can't provide a valid driver's license, his newly wrecked, uninsured truck is impounded, thus completing the circle of shared misery. Did we think that a person who is willing to move 3,000 miles from his hometown, family, friends, language, food and culture and risk his life crossing the border for a $9-an-hour job, is somehow going to be prevented from going to work because we won't let him have a driver's license? The answer is no but he is one motivated employee.

Recently I was in Dumas visiting with a family who complained that, more and more, police were handing out tickets for “DWL,” or Driving While Latino. Most Latinos in South Arkansas work in agriculture and most don't have documents and the police know this. This family said small towns like Dumas had created a new version of the old speed trap. Police know that anytime they pull over a Latino, even on a minor infraction, they have a better than even chance of issuing a ticket for driving without a license, which is a $600 to $800 fine. To avoid driving, Latino workers organize car pools with a licensed driver. After the Dumas tornado this spring, one carpool driver was out of commission and the grown son in this family, afraid he would be fired if he did not get to work, borrowed his father's car. He was pulled over for having his windows overtinted by an El Dorado policeman who was in Dumas on storm duty. He was arrested for not having a license and the car impounded. He called his father from the jail and the father along with another grown brother went down to get the son and car. However the other son, also unlicensed, drove (don't ask me why) and was promptly arrested on his arrival at the impound lot and the father was ticketed for allowing him to drive the family car. So now the whole family, facing about $2,500 in fines, take the day off from their hourly jobs and show up for court. The Times sent a stringer to watch the proceedings and sure enough, the policeman didn't show. Since the defendants didn't have a lawyer and didn't know they could demand the case be dismissed, the judge rescheduled them for a later appearance, meaning they'll lose another day's pay in addition to the inevitable fines.

The majority of Latinos in Arkansas today are here without documents. Estimates run as high as 70 percent, which translates to upwards of 100,000 people living in the shadows, without driver's licenses, insurance or anything else.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation published two volumes of research recently prepared by the non-partisan Urban Institute that provides virtually the only reliable insight into the realities of Arkansas's immigrant community. Unmatched for the sheer irony was the finding that in Arkansas, undocumented, Latino men have the highest employment rate (81 percent) of any group, including non-Hispanic white men. Workers who are barred by distance, language, law and often education have been more successful at finding work than anyone else.

The Urban Institute study says Arkansas's manufacturing output would drop by $1.4 billion if immigrants working in Arkansas were sent back home. The majority of that hit would come in the form of poultry processing and meatpacking plant closings.

A few weeks ago, when Rep. Green and his crew hauled in officials from the Departments of Education, Higher Education and Correction to publicize the cost to taxpayers of legal and illegal immigrants, they neglected to invite anyone from the Department of Finance and Administration to report on the financial contributions these same immigrants are making as taxpayers. Had they attempted to give a balanced picture the news would have been that immigrants, both legal and illegal, contribute almost $20 million a year more in taxes than they use in state services. According to the Urban Institute study, the state spent about $237 million in 2004 on services to the immigrant community (primarily for education, health care and corrections/law enforcement). At the same time, immigrants paid $257 million in state income, sales and property taxes.

Those numbers do not include the economic contribution to Arkansas's private sector that immigrants make. The Urban Institute estimates that immigrants contributed almost $3 billion to the state's economy in 2004, with an after tax income of $2.7 billion. Even after subtracting 20 percent for savings and remittances to family members back home, their spending still had a total impact on the state of $2.9 billion. Send them all home tomorrow and we would lose 23,100 jobs that immigrant spending supports (primarily native-born jobs) along with $618 million in lost payrolls. In Central Arkansas alone we would lose $638 million in business revenues, 5,000 jobs and $143 million in payroll from those jobs.

If we want economic development in Arkansas, encourage immigrants to come here. Educate their children and do what we can within federal law to make their lives tolerable. According to UALR, we already have more than 2,000 Latino-owned businesses in Arkansas. The pioneers coming now are poorly educated, but by 2015, 23 percent of the high school seniors in Arkansas will be Latino and if we permit them, they will go on to college and accelerate the economic progress their parents and we have started.

Historically the states that have served as magnets for immigrants, legal and otherwise, have been the most dynamic economically and culturally. Arkansas hasn't had any in-migration to speak of since the start of the 20th century and our economic performance reflects that. This new in-migration represents one of those rare events where our economic self-interest and the do-right rule happily coincide. If we do what is right, if we follow our better lights, we will be richer as well. Fifty years ago during the Central High integration effort, we missed an opportunity to become the symbol of a New South and reap the economic and cultural benefits that ultimately went to Atlanta. Had we done the right thing, our history would have been different. Today a few mayors and legislators have elected to demagogue the issue of immigration hoping to rise to higher office on the backs of a politically weak and voiceless population. We've been down that road and we know where it leads. This time let's get it right.

Alan Leveritt is publisher of the Arkansas Times, whose related publications include El Latino, a Spanish-language weekly newspaper.

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