Immigration Roils Small-Town America

Jim Tankersley and Christi Parsons, The Swamp, September 25, 2008

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In Manassas, some old-timers watch their home changing and fight the newcomers. Others fight that backlash.

For all of them, it’s a battle for their very identity.

A new complexion

For most of our history, immigrants settled largely in the Northeast and the Midwest. In 1920, nine out of 10 immigrants lived in cities of more than 100,000. The quintessential immigrant destination was Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Now the decline of traditional manufacturing is redirecting immigrants to agricultural centers in the South, tourist centers in the West, smaller cities all over. The Census Bureau first picked up on this dispersion in the 1980s, but the proportion of immigrants in small towns really took off in the mid-1990s.

In Prince William County, where Manassas sits, whites went from 65 percent of the population in 2000 to 52 percent in 2006. Hispanics increased—from 10 percent to 20 percent, roughly—in the same period.

Maureen Wood liked the diversity at first. The students at the high school where she is a substitute teacher taught her Spanish words.

Then the school district put up mobile classrooms.

A friend’s son couldn’t get work as a landscaper when he came home from college for the summer. The company owner said he only hired native Spanish speakers, to make it easier for his crew and foreman.

The changes turned Wood and Kipp into activists. Pressure from citizens like them is having a powerful effect in Prince William County.

Last year, the county board of supervisors ordered its police force to inquire more regularly about people’s Immigration status. They later scaled back that directive, but the thunderous debate had its effect, as immigrants started running scared. Hundreds withdrew from English-as-a-second language programs in local schools.

At the end of their patrol, Wood steers her minivan down Kipp’s street.

“The kids speak Spanish at school, even though they can speak English,” says Wood. “It’s like there’s no incentive to assimilate into the community.”

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From the campaigns, silence

America as a whole is headed toward a diversity once familiar only in its urban centers. By the middle of this century, white people will no longer make up a majority. Hispanics will far outnumber African-Americans.

Some places welcome the infusion. The medical system is heavily populated by immigrant doctors and nurses. Some 40 percent of start-up companies in Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants.

In many other places, the influx inspires distrust. Ballot initiatives seek to declare English the official language. Citizen militias form to track illegal immigrants.

Distrust drove much of the debate about Immigration during the primaries, when some Republican candidates appealed directly to people angry about the issue. McCain was the champion of a reform plan unpopular with those voters, though, and today he mostly avoids the topic. And the similarity of his views to Obama’s helps neutralize it as a campaign issue.

The result is a remarkable silence.

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