‘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.

Immigrants (and their U.S.-born children) have a small but positive net fiscal impact on the state budget, according to the Rockefeller profile:

“The large and growing immigrant population was reflected in a fiscal impact on the state budget of $237 million in 2004 (taking into account the costs of education, health services, and corrections). Those costs were more than balanced by direct and indirect tax contributions of $257 million, resulting in a net surplus to the state budget of $19 million — approximately $158 per immigrant. Though education is calculated as a fiscal cost in this report, expenditures to educate immigrants' children represent an important investment in Arkansas's future workforce that could pay substantial returns to the state through increased worker productivity and economic growth.”

Eduardo Martinez came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1985, invited by a brother who was already here. Asked the unavoidable question, he says “I came in legal.” He spoke no English at the time — he had only a third-grade education — but he's learned it since. He came alone, and now he has a wife and children. He started working in restaurants, washing dishes and waiting tables, and he worked his way up. Now he owns a grocery store, a taqueria and a bakery, and he can afford to send his children to private, Catholic schools. “I learned everything from you [Americans],” he says. “I watched what you guys do. I'm part of the country now.”

He knows that some Arkansans have a low opinion of Latinos, but “When Anglos see a guy working on the roof, they change their minds. People are impressed by hard workers.” Latinos are hard workers, he says, and “We like to own, we don't like to borrow. Look at how much money we bring to the state. We're coming here to pick the country up, not to destroy it.”

He says that he personally has not suffered discrimination because of ethnicity, but he knows people who have. “I know a person who can't go to the university because he's not legal. He's broken-hearted, talking about leaving the country.” He refutes the notion that undocumented workers should be sent home because they're taking jobs from natives. “There's a lot of open jobs. If the people without papers are forced out, you won't be able to find anybody else to do those jobs.”

Businessmen much bigger than Eduardo Martinez fret about jobs going unfilled if immigrants are driven out. Alltel and Stephens, Inc., joined Tyson Foods among those who announced in October the formation of the Arkansas Friendship Coalition. Religious leaders and liberal activists were other founders of the group. Rev. Steve Copley of Little Rock, the chairman, fits in both those categories. He's a Methodist minister and he's worked in many liberal causes, most recently a successful movement to raise the state minimum wage.

The coalition's base may be wide, but its focus is narrow. The varied interests of the coalition founders probably prevented any broader agreement. The coalition is opposed to the state government and/or local governments enacting any immigration legislation. “The Arkansas Friendship Coalition maintains that immigration is a federal issue and that state and local money should not be wasted to fix a problem that is ultimately a responsibility of the federal government,” the coalition said in a news release.

Copley said in an interview that some states, including Oklahoma, have passed “punitive” immigration laws. In some cases, it's said, such laws have driven immigrants from those states. The coalition knows that there are state and city officials in Arkansas, mostly in Northwest Arkansas, who favor the same kind of legislation.

“Reform is needed, but it has to come from Congress,” Copley said. “Because that's what the Constitution says, and because it would be bad to have a patchwork arrangement, 50 states with different laws governing immigration.” The Arkansas legislature won't meet again until January 2009, but coalition members are already arranging meetings with individual legislators.

People who believe there are too many immigrants in this country and that some should be shipped home often argue that the debate is simply about legality. Why should “illegal aliens” be permitted to stay here, they ask. The coalition pointedly avoids reference to “illegal aliens.” Asked why, Copley said, “I use the word ‘undocumented.' It's not a crime per se to lack the documents. It's more of an administrative issue, like taxes. ‘Undocumented' is a much clearer way of describing it, and less inflammatory.” Besides, he said, “We feel that if people are here, they should be treated fairly and with dignity,” with documents or without.

Doubtless, Mayor Stephen Womack of Rogers would have no problem with an Eduardo Martinez. Not all immigrants are like Martinez.

Rogers is a city of 50,000. Latino immigrants make up 30 percent of the population. “The immigrant population commits a disproportionate number of offenses like stealing utilities, doing drugs, and not paying taxes,” Womack said in an interview at Rogers City Hall. “Seventy-five percent of the citations for no driver's license go to Latino people, and 80 percent of the citations for hindering government operations [using false identification]. Now, when we catch these people we can send them back where they came from.” He's referring to a new program in which a few designated Rogers police officers enforce federal immigration laws. The Benton County and Washington County sheriffs' offices participate in the same program. Latino spokesmen say such programs entail “racial profiling,” harassing people because they look like they might be illegal immigrants. These programs also cause immigrants to be even more afraid of local police than they already are, and thus to refrain from reporting real crimes, the spokesmen say.

“We've never racially profiled and we won't,” Womack said. “That's a lot of crap. The police don't go out looking for illegal aliens. But when they encounter a criminal act and they arrest somebody, many of those arrested can't show identification, can't prove they are who they claim. Then the police have a reason to detain them, to determine the status of the person, to determine the removability of the person.” He said he didn't hear much from Rogers' Latino residents, but the natives support the program. “The comments I hear most are ‘I don't mind people coming here to better themselves, but I don't want the illegality, I want the law enforced.' Some add that they want English spoken.”

He added, “I know the program also brings out the worst in people who don't like anybody who doesn't look like them. That's unfortunate.”

He may get unwelcome praise from that element, but, he said, he gets unfair criticism from another. “You can't discuss the immigrant problem fully without people painting you as biased and intolerant. I think we should be able to talk about it.”

When the Mexican consulate at Little Rock opened in April 2007, state and city officials were delighted, others not so much. Reports of the opening that appeared in The Morning News, a Northwest Arkansas newspaper, elicited more than 200 on-line comments, almost all of them negative, many extremely so:

“Contact your state reps and demand this be stopped.” “I am not glad to see [Governor Mike] Beebe is a spinless [sic] advocate of illegal immigration.” “This is just one more nail in America's coffin.” “Polio was eradicated from the U.S., but now it reappears in illegal aliens.” “Go Arkies go! Save your state from the Third World invasion. It's too late for mine.” “It's time for a revolution.” “Have you ever lived in Los Angeles? It's a toilet.” “We need to deport all of them and focus on the citizens of this country.”

Located behind a strip shopping center on University Avenue, near the southwest Little Rock neighborhoods where Mexican immigrants congregate, the consulate is an unimposing one-story building, easy to miss before a sign pointing the way was posted on University. Still, the mere idea of Little Rock having a consulate, anybody's consulate, would have astonished the city's residents not too many years back.

Mexican immigrants have poured into the U.S. in recent years. According to Andres Chao, the Little Rock consul, about a million of them live in the area served by the consulate. That's Arkansas, Mississippi, eastern Oklahoma and western Tennessee. Protecting them is Chao's job. He met with Womack in Rogers about the new police program. Both men say the meeting was civil, but they didn't reach agreement. Chao says he's still waiting for documentation that Womack was supposed to send concerning the alleged high crime rates for Mexican immigrants in Rogers.

Immigration is a worldwide problem, Chao said, but “In Europe, they're tearing down the walls,” while some Americans want to build new walls or strengthen old ones. “We [Mexico] want to build bridges instead of fences,” he said.

Chao said that his government too wants fewer Mexicans leaving home for the U.S. “We need to create well-paying jobs in Mexico,” Chao said. “A worker can make in a week in the U.S. what he makes in a month in Mexico. If we don't stop the loss of younger labor, in 10 years we'll have a serious problem. The two countries need to share the problem. There are costs and benefits to both sides.”

As for the criticism that Mexican immigrants drive down wages and take jobs away from American workers, Chao said, “The jobs are there. We don't make the decision how much to pay.”

The problem of people not speaking English will correct itself over time, Chao said. “The ones who have been here awhile say ‘I want my son to speak English.' The younger generation now speaks more English than Spanish. It causes problems in the family. Old people have trouble learning English. The grammar is different, and many of them have low levels of education.”

Those younger, English-speaking people will stay in the U.S., Chao said. Most of the older ones want to go back to Mexico eventually, even if they won't know when they get there. “The Mexican government spent $5 million last year to help Mexicans be buried in Mexico,” Chao said.


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