Noel, Mo.: Standing Side by Side

Phillip O’Connor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 10, 2008

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Ask Gamino [Esmerelda Gamino of Rosa’s Mexican Store] what impact a crackdown on illegal immigration would have on the eight-year-old family-owned business and the native of Mexico doesn’t hesitate:

“We would have to close down,” she says. “We are nothing without the Hispanic community. I don’t think we could survive.”

Some community leaders wonder whether Noel [Missouri] could either.

Although Hispanics make up less than 3 percent of Missouri’s population, leaders in Noel estimate that more than half of the town’s 1,500 residents hail from south of the border. No one knows for sure how many are here illegally. Some estimate at least half. It’s a question rarely asked.

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Foreign workers flooded into this rural region over the past 20 years, drawn in large part by corporate poultry processing that transformed this once nearly all-white enclave into one of Missouri’s more racially mixed communities.

The Hispanic influx swelled school enrollment, reinvigorated religious congregations and spurred a local development boom. Along Main Street, Sosa’s Hair Dressing, a Mexican market and storefront Hispanic churches now stand side-by-side with the local cafe, bank and post office. Hispanics are buying homes, relocating relatives and establishing roots in the community.

“If all of a sudden you lose that, it would be hurtful,” said Mayor Paul Gardner, as he waited on customers at his sandwich shop. “It would be extremely hurtful.”

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‘GREAT PEOPLE’

One obvious victim of a crackdown would be the city’s biggest corporate benefactor—the Tyson poultry plant on the edge of town. Tyson provides about 10 percent of the town’s $600,000 annual budget, free sewage treatment for many residents, and it helps underwrite many community events, Gardner said.

About 40 percent of the 1,000-member workforce is Hispanic. Although company officials said they have zero tolerance for illegal workers, town leaders say it’s no secret that many who work at the plant do so in violation of immigration laws. And, they say, any kind of rigorous immigration enforcement would lead many who are here legally to accompany home family members who are not.

The prevailing belief around Noel is that Tyson would struggle to find Americans willing to fill the difficult production and maintenance jobs that pay from $8.35 to $14.30 an hour.

Although a few “old timers” may object to the influx of Hispanics and “would jump up and down with joy” if the plant closed, Gardner said, the loss “would be devastating” economically.

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Sister Adelida Esquivel [of Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church] estimates as much as 80 percent of the church’s overwhelmingly Hispanic congregation is in the country illegally. Without those parishioners, she says with certainty, the 36-year-old church would close. In her year and a half in the parish, the church has averaged about eight baptisms a month, she said. All were Hispanic.

Recently stepped up immigration enforcement in neighboring states is taking a toll on parish life, she said. When Arkansas and Oklahoma enacted tougher laws, several people stopped coming to church functions, she said.

Esquivel, who was born in the United States, said she had been stopped in Arkansas recently and asked whether she was in the country legally.

“People are scared,” she said.

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“The problem doesn’t come from the Hispanics,” LeSueur [Deputy Sheriff Mike LeSueur] said. “It comes from a lack of understanding among the whites.”

‘DESIRE TO ACHIEVE’

At Noel Elementary, the staff works hard to bridge any such misunderstandings, Principal Nick Nichols said. On a recent day, white and brown students mingle at cafeteria tables, chattering between bites of chicken nuggets.

On a nearby wall, two enlarged copies of the school’s mission statement are displayed, one in English, the other in Spanish.

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He said he knew of cases in which deported parents had their school-age children taken in by other Hispanics in Noel. That way, the children could continue their education in the United States.

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School is one of the few places where whites and Hispanics mix with ease. The adults, for the most part, move in separate worlds. Even some of the churches have separate facilities for whites and Hispanics.

On a recent afternoon, a group of seven men and women gathered for an English lesson. They asked that their names not be used out of fear they would be arrested. All said they were in the country illegally and had used false identification they easily purchased to get jobs at the Tyson plant.

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Given a choice, all said they would rather stay in Noel than return home. They say most people in Noel are friendly, though they acknowledge there is a gulf between Hispanics and whites.

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The mayor, who is married to a woman who entered the country illegally but is now a naturalized citizen, is optimistic the two cultures can assimilate.

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