Posted on August 9, 2006

Hola, Delaware!: How Guatemalan immigrants changed a small American town.

Christopher Caldwell, Weekly Standard, August 14, 2006

Georgetown, Delaware — “Cristo viene,” reads a bumper sticker on a beat-up old Econoline van parked in front of the police station here. “ Estás preparado?” The van has North Carolina license plates, even though its owner lives down the street. Many of the other cars parked in the ramshackle nineteenth-century neighborhood called Kimmeytown have North Carolina or Pennsylvania plates. Shortly after 9/11, Delaware governor Ruth Ann Minner blocked the issuance of tags to people who couldn’t prove their citizenship with a Social Security card. North Carolina and Pennsylvania ask fewer questions. That is a big plus here. Kimmeytown is inhabited almost entirely by Guatemalan immigrants who, around 1993, suddenly started showing up in their thousands.

Half a block away is a two-story house where someone put up pillars a few decades back to make it look more like Tara. Now there’s a sprung sofa on the front porch and — a desideratum of Guatemalan-American houses — garlands of Christmas lights dangling from the roof. The whole building is leaning rhomboidally. Houses take a beating here. In the past decade the local papers have been full of stories of illegal immigrants living a-family-to-a-room or three-dozen-to-a-basement.

Inside the station, the crew-cut police chief William Topping sits amidst a flag, his military decorations, a mounted pistol of some kind, and a gigantic box of Advil within arm’s reach. “We have people who die and can’t get death certificates because we have no birth certificates,” he says. “We get calls from all over the country from people saying: ‘I’ve never worked at a chicken plant and I’ve never been to Delaware, and the IRS tells me I owe taxes for working there.’“

Delaware’s reported immigrant population has nearly doubled since 2000 — to 67,000 — and 9 percent of births in the state are to illegal immigrant mothers. There are around 3,000 Chinese in the northern part of the state, most of them students or high-tech workers around Wilmington and Philadelphia. There are mosques up there, too. There are a handful of Haitians in some agricultural towns. Pretty Czech and Polish girls dominate the cash-register and waitressing jobs in the coastal resorts from about May to September. That, of course, is small potatoes compared with the past two decades’ mass migration elsewhere in the country. But it has been sufficient to bring about an unprecedented transformation of many towns in the bucolic and historically poor south of the state.

Suddenly a minority

Sussex is the southernmost of Delaware’s three counties. Almost everyone who has studied it thinks it resembles an outpost of the Bible Belt or the Deep South that has somehow come loose and attached itself to the mid-Atlantic. “The northernmost county of Mississippi,” some New Yorker writer is said to have written years ago. A long coal train chugs through the middle of Georgetown on the way to the electrical plant at Dagsboro. At Smith’s Family Restaurant on Market Street, there are tables full of potbellied, 60-ish men in plaid shirts and suspenders and hunting caps and jeans. There are small-town notables — mostly lawyers, for this is the county seat — in tight, two-piece suits, who can’t seem to keep their hands off the backs of the people they’re talking to. And there is a woman at the front door who says, “Have a blesséd evening” when you tell her how good the chicken with dumplings was.

Delaware voted for Breckenridge in the election of 1860, and its sympathies in the Civil War were uncertain. In New Castle County, near Wilmington, they leaned Union. Down here, Confederate sympathies (and enlistment) increased throughout the war. There is a historic whipping post in Georgetown, though accounts diverge on when the authorities stopped using it. The WPA guide, published at the tail end of the Depression, insists it was still in use in 1938. Desegregation was slow — Georgetown’s William C. Jason High School, the Negro high school for the county, closed only in 1967.

One difference between Sussex County and the Deep South is that the white population of Sussex County is much less diverse. Virtually all the white people here are English, Welsh, or Scots-Irish — and Methodist, for this is the cradle of American Methodism, with the denomination’s very oldest churches. You seldom meet a person whose surname isn’t also the name of a nearby street. From the eighteenth century until the mid-twentieth-century leisure boom that turned nearby Rehoboth and Bethany from Methodist prayer camps into summer resorts, Georgetown’s experience with immigration — even of migration from elsewhere in the United States — was next to nil.

After the Civil War, the C.H. Treat Co. opened a wooden-plate factory and brought in employees to run it. Kimmeytown was built to house them. They were white, English-speaking Protestants from further north, and still they got the cold shoulder. According to the historian William H. Williams, Wesley United Methodist Church took them in as worshipers, but refused to give them any positions of responsibility. So they built Grace UMC, the rival church that exists in Kimmeytown to this day. During World War II, a smattering of Jewish entrepreneurs from New York set up chicken operations in this part of the Delmarva Peninsula, according to Williams. There were a few dozen Bahamians and Jamaicans brought in to farm land for men away at war. They soon went home.

In the past decade, the Anglo-Saxon Methodists have not just encountered immigration — they have suddenly become a minority. Georgetown had 4,896 people in the 2000 census, 32 percent of whom described themselves as Hispanic. It is hard to find an official in Georgetown who believes that percentage was accurate even at the time it was compiled. Conservative estimates of the town’s Latin American population put it at 3,000. Other guesses run over 5,000, higher than the official population of the town. That might not be far off, to judge from the outlying concentrations of Guatemalans and Mexicans — like the chock-a-block County Seat trailer park, hidden in a forest northeast of town, where mobile homes of 1950s and 1960s vintage are festooned with Christmas lights as if this were Central America.

The majority of Delaware Guatemalans come from near Tacaná, in San Marcos province. Most can use Spanish as a second language but speak an Indian language — usually Mam — at home. They are leaving their mark. On Race Street, there is a place called Central Service where you can do laundry, get guanábana juice, wire money, cash checks, and watch the World Cup. There are a number of Latin American grocery stores, including the big Mercado, which sells Mexican CDs, coconut water, and big plastic bags of pork scratchings. Outside is a cart where a man sells grilled corn-on-the-cob. Many once-sleepy towns on the Delmarva peninsula — particularly those, such as Millsboro, Selbyville, and Seaford, that have chicken plants — are taking on a Central American cast, with money-wiring services, young men in cowboy boots, girls decked out in elaborate dresses for quinceañera parties, and soccer games in vacant lots.

You probably can’t expect everyone to love that. There are communities in Delaware that have come down on immigration like a ton of bricks. Over the past two years, the town of Elsmere, near Wilmington, has sought to pass a variety of controversial (and legally questionable) ordinances. One would have imposed $100 fines on those who couldn’t prove legal U.S. residence within 72 hours, an other would have banned on-street parking for those with out-of-state plates. And there have been various edicts affecting landlords, including $1,000 fines for those who rent to illegal aliens, and requirements that all landlords give local authorities a list of the vehicle registrations of their tenants.

This approach may have been tempting in Georgetown. Workers have sometimes crowded into rooms to the point where they were sleeping in shifts. A worker who came back from his night shift job at 2 A.M. and found his bed occupied would wander the streets of town alone to kill time until his bed freed up. This kind of normal Latin American behavior scared the dickens out of the locals. In 1993, an immigrant who had been out drinking drove his car across a median strip and hit a popular high-school cheerleader, killing her instantly and sparking tensions. Bob Ricker, a longtime fire chief and former mayor, infuriated immigrants when he said: “It is their job to bring themselves up to our level, not bring our society down to theirs.” A Latino congregation hoping to worship at a local Methodist church while they built a church of their own got a lukewarm reception. Worries were expressed about the “spread of disease” from too close contact with immigrants, according to one parishioner. At a church meeting to clear the air, a local custodian stood up and shouted, “You’re going to regret bringing these people in here!” There was bitter resentment of the local chicken companies, whose need for labor, it was said, had changed the town beyond recognition.

Sitting at a desk in a tiny cabin at the front of the used-car lot he runs, Mike Wyatt, the mayor of Georgetown, says the town really didn’t have any idea what was happening to it until it had become a different place altogether. “The demographics started changing in the early 1990s,” he recalls, “but people didn’t wake up to it until about 1997. Back then, everybody hated them. Today, I would say that 85 percent understand them.”


Identity crisis

Kevin Andrade, an Ecuadoran journalist who broadcasts in Spanish three hours a week on local radio station WGMD, says he has heard that 50 percent of immigrants eligible for renewal of their “temporary protected status” — which allows them to stay in the United States if their home country has been hit by a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 — don’t exercise it. Many immigrants have developed the conviction, he says, that if Congress should offer amnesty to illegal immigrants, those who are legal will not be permitted to stay. Apparently, they are used to life-or-death questions with ironic answers. On a 100-degree Sunday afternoon from a radio studio in the middle of a cornfield, Andrade pleads with his listeners, “If you have the opportunity to renew, don’t wait for tomorrow! Having your documents in order is the most important thing of all.” That, at least, is something that everyone in Delaware can agree on. Dan Gaffney, the programming director at the station, is on the air himself for 20 hours a week. His conversations vary, but his callers insist on one thing: “They’re adamant,” he says, “about this legal-illegal status thing.” That is, they care a lot, rhetorically at least, about whether an immigrant came into the country with a visa or sneaked across the border.

So does Jan Ting, a law professor at Temple University. Ting has the Republican endorsement to run for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Tom Carper in November. He was an assistant commissioner of the INS under “Bush 41,” as he calls him, and is campaigning on immigration as his “number-one issue.” That his own parents were immigrants — his father, a refugee from Japanese-occupied China, fought for the United States in World War II — does nothing to reduce his sympathy for Delawareans who are riled up about newcomers’ paperwork. “People should be riled up,” he said during a campaign swing through Sussex County. “The [Wilmington] News-Journal doesn’t print the race of perpetrators. So you know they won’t print immigrant status.”

Ting feels that Americans were sold a bill of goods with the 1986 “Simpson-Mazzoli” immigration reform, which extended amnesty to workers in exchange for heightened enforcement of immigration laws. He doesn’t want it to happen again. It was predicted that a million immigrants would gain amnesty; 3 million did. The enforcement never happened. Ting sees today’s Senate bill, which offers a path to citizenship to those here, as similarly naive. He cites a Bear Stearns study arguing that there are 20 million illegal immigrants in the United States now, rather than the 12 million usually reported. The worst problem with the Simpson-Mazzoli approach, Ting believes, is that all it required employers to do when hiring an employee was to look at a document on its face, rather than verify it. “It has provoked a huge industry in counterfeit documents,” he says.

Ting is quite right. The 1986 law has given companies that hire immigrants what amounts to plausible deni ability, should they happen to hire an illegal one — or should they happen to hire illegals systematically. It is not a coincidence that Phoenix, the first stop on many immigrants’ journeys into the United States, also ranks first in identity theft. Ting suggests an electronic verification system such as is used when you buy something with a credit card. “Does that work,” he asks, sitting in a coffee shop in Lewes, “or does that not work?”

It does work. But there already is such a system, the INS’s Employer Verification Pilot (EVP). Many area companies, including Perdue, already use it for every em ployee hired. Fraudulent papers are grounds for dismissal. But civil rights laws make it hard to challenge a new hire’s documents. Courts have assumed that the only reason one would want to be so intrusive is that the worker in question has brown skin or talks funny.

Phony numbers and identities, once established as untraceable, can be used for years, and even recycled from immigrant to immigrant. In the late 1990s, the Washington Post ran a number of News-of-the-Weird-style stories about Delaware immigrants whose assumed identities had tied them in knots — the man whose identity came with alimony payments from a previous user, for instance, and who kept making the payments to a woman he’d never met because the ability to work was worth more to him than the monthly deductions. It is easy, too, to imagine the Damoclean menace that a long-ago decision to fudge one’s identity would cause. Phony statements tend to beget phony statements. There must be many a long-established paterfamilias waiting — like Bulstrode in Middlemarch or Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge — for a long-ago misdeed to catch up with him.

Crime among Georgetown immigrants that does not involve their legal status is low. There is a serious problem with illegal driving. And there is rampant, self-destructive, lie-down-in-the-middle-of-the-street alcoholic binging, of a sort that will not exactly surprise anyone who has visited rural Guatemala. But there appears to be none of the gang activity that some immigrant groups in bigger cities fall into. This spring, one local police officer told WBOC in Salisbury that there had been activity by the Salvadoran gang MS-13 in the area. Police Chief Topping disputes that. “These people’s main relationship with crime,” he says, “is as victims of it.”

Immigrants are victimized in subtle ways. Those who get hired with a fake Social Security number (and get accused of “ripping off the system” on right-wing talk radio) are paying money into FICA and Social Security that they will never see. They are also victims of more overt robberies. Many workers are afraid or unable to use banks. They walk around with their life savings in their pocket — great wads of many thousands of dollars. Those who live among nonfamily members often padlock themselves in their rooms. And since, in these dried-out buildings, solitary men tend stupidly to put four or five appliances on a single extension cord — cooker, television, space heater, mini-fridge, lamp — fires are frequent, and sometimes fatal. Workers add to their bankrolls at the end of every week when the check-cashing vehicle pulls into the parking lot of the chicken plant. The money is with them when they go into the liquor store with friends. It’s with them when they wander into the woods behind the First State Community Action building. And it’s with them when they fall down drunk. But it’s not always there when they wake up.

Not left behind

Given their vulnerability, their high levels of illiteracy, and the language barrier, one naturally expects the children of these immigrants to be struggling a bit. They are not. They are doing extremely — almost shockingly — well. Latinos make up 40 percent of the student population at Georgetown North elementary school, and that percentage is steadily rising. They will make up 55 percent of the first graders who arrive on the first day of school next month. Thanks to No Child Left Behind laws, there is a bevy of data broken down all sorts of ways on school progress. Hispanics in the third grade at Georgetown North are outscoring both whites and blacks in reading comprehension.

This should not surprise us as much as it probably does. Obsessed as we are with upward social mobility, Americans harbor a sneaking assumption that only educated parents can have educated children. Learning, the thinking goes, is a matter of playing Mozart in pregnancy and keeping the Classic Children’s Books strewn tastefully about the bedroom. This is quite wrong. You don’t learn by aping the learned classes — you learn by taking the work of learning seriously. Latino children come to school as ready to work as their parents do at the plant. Asked if Latino parents did anything differently, James Hudson, the principal at North Georgetown, says, “The first question parents ask at parent-teacher conferences is not ‘How are my child’s grades?’ but ‘How is my child’s behavior?’“

There may also be a political factor behind young Latino students’ success. In the early decades of mass immigration — say from the seventies through the nineties — a lot of the ideas about what makes a new community successful were simply borrowed from the utopian left of the civil rights movement. One great advantage of the Delaware immigration, it turns out, is that it happened after a lot of baseless nostrums of the caring professions were discredited. Institutions were built up in the more pragmatic spirit of Gingrich Republicanism, without any immigrants’-rights establishment protecting its entrenched programs and its turf.

Asked about bilingual education, Hudson gives a look as if he’s never heard the term before. “The key is that all kids have access to the regular curriculum,” he says. “You don’t want to isolate them from what the other kids are learning.” North Georgetown has three English-Language Learner teachers. One of them, Meg Lawson, says that her immigrant students are possessed of a great curiosity. “They like the nonfiction more than the fiction. That surprised me.” Her second-graders last year particularly liked learning about hibernation and migration. What about teaching them about their culture? “I try to do different books that aren’t about their own culture,” she says. “They know their own culture. Some tests try to use more names like José or Juan. I don’t think that makes a difference.”

In rural areas, school systems are doubly important, because some of the work of assimilation that cities do automatically doesn’t get done there. An urban immigrant has to know enough English to buy a subway token. A rural immigrant can disappear into a subculture as iso lated as that of the Amish. Such subcultures can be picturesque and upstanding, but it is probably a mistake to encourage them when the influx of immigrants is as large as it is today.

Who are those five thousand people?

Until this past winter, immigrants in Delaware were decidedly apolitical. Unions have had some success at organizing chicken-catchers (the people who grab the chickens to be sent to slaughter), but none of the processing-plant workers are unionized. Immigrant communities across the country had been boiling for weeks over House Bill 4437 — the tough immigrant-enforcement measure sponsored by Wisconsin congressman James Sensenbrenner — before anyone in Georgetown had ever heard of it.

The decision to stage a rally in downtown Georgetown in support of nationwide demonstrations on February 14 seems to have been made on February 12 or 13, by several local leaders. Pastor René Knight of Iglesia Metodista Unida Betel had been in touch with two groups — the National Council of La Raza and Day Without an Immigrant/Philadelphia. Knight, a big, charismatic man from the Dominican Republic, has traveled to Guatemala, as have many Protestant evangelists in recent decades. He estimates that 45 percent of Guatemalans, not just in the United States but in their home country, are evangelical Christians of some description. “Real religion is social religion,” Knight said in an interview in July. “As a pastor I have a call to be in the community. How am I to preach the Good News of Jesus closed in a building?”

That was the beginning of a season of protest in Georgetown, which brought tensions with immigrants to their highest point since the mid-1990s. Much of the organizing was done by churches. On March 7, a local Catholic priest from Colombia, with the help of Mexicans without Borders and the Hispanic Coalition of Delaware, took five busloads of South Delaware Latinos to Washington for a protest. On April 10, many of the same groups joined in the National Day of Action for Immigration Justice.

The Day Without an Immigrant held on May 1 was supposed to mark an escalation of protest nationwide, with calls on immigrants not only to stay home from work but also to refrain from spending money. It was an impressive event in Georgetown, with thousands massing in a park off of Bedford Street, but less confrontational than in other parts of the country. Loose talk about punishing local businesses is stupid politics in a small town. “We told our constituents that we were not joining that,” says René Diaz, a Puerto Rican schoolteacher from nearby Bridgeville, and one of the more active organizers with Mexicans without Borders, “because it wouldn’t be right, given the cooperation we’d received.” It isn’t too wise, either, to alienate an area’s largest employer — in this case, the chicken plants — and this led to another local variation. “We never sprang a march on them,” Diaz says. “The people in Human Resources were told well in advance. One thing we always said clearly: ‘The chicken plants are cooperating. If you’re in danger of losing a job, don’t march.’“

These marches and demonstrations divided community leaders. Some favored the activism as a show of force: Here was one industry, after all, where the vast majority of workers were immigrants, and the dependence of employers was abject. On May 1, four of the five poultry-processing plants in the county closed. By assembling what Mayor Wyatt calls “two, three, four thousand people” in a town the size of Georgetown, the Latinos showed themselves not just a force in the community, but a majority.

They may have proved their point too well. “It was stupid,” says one community leader who asked not to be identified. “Why hurt the very people who want to have you here?” Commercial leaders and personnel directors from the poultry industry coordinated with march leaders to minimize disruptions, just as Diaz said. That left the poultry execs in an awkward position. All right, many people muttered, if all your workers are legal, then who are those five thousand people out on the circle?

There is another curiosity about the protests in Georgetown. One constantly meets leaders of the Hispanic community in South Delaware who are Puerto Rican, Spanish, Colombian, Dominican, Ecuadoran, Mexican . . . but never any Guatemalans from Kimmeytown. Why is that? Most people, when you ask, will say something about the legacy of Guatemala’s civil war, and lessons learned in a place where the slightest political involvement can be deadly. But René Knight thinks the incentives to keep one’s head down come from closer to home. “Their status does not allow them to speak out,” he says, explaining that his own ability to take a high public profile is due to his U.S. citizenship. Kevin Andrade, the radio host, offered a different explanation, which, if true, would show how profoundly Guatemalans have assimilated into the life of the most Confederate part of Delaware and one of the most conservative parts of the United States. “People in this area hate politicians, anyway,” he said.