Posted on September 24, 2019

Immigrant Kids Fill This Town’s Schools. Their Bus Driver Is Leading the Backlash.

Michael Miller, Washington Post, September 23, 2019

It was the first day of school, so Don Brink was behind the wheel of his bus, its yellow paint glistening in the drizzling dawn. {snip}


“I say ‘good morning’ to the kids who’ll respond to me,” he said later. “But this year there are a lot of strange kids I’ve never seen before.”

Those children, some of whom crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone, have fueled a bitter debate about immigration in Worthington, a community of 13,000 that has received more unaccompanied minors per capita than almost anywhere in the country, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Five times in just over five years, the district has asked residents to approve an expansion of its schools to handle the surge in enrollment. Five times, the voters have refused — the last time by a margin of just 17 votes. A sixth referendum is scheduled for November.

The divide can be felt all over Worthington, where “Minnesota nice” has devolved into “Yes” and “No” window signs, boycotts on businesses and next-door neighbors who no longer speak. A Catholic priest who praised immigrants was booed from the pews and has received death threats.

The driving force behind the defeats has been a handful of white farmers in this Trump-supporting county, including Brink, the bus driver.

Even as he earns a paycheck ferrying undocumented children to and from school, Brink opposes the immigration system that allowed them to come to Worthington.


‘They arrive every day’

Inside Worthington High, more than a thousand students were scrambling to find their classrooms before the morning bell, their sneakers squeaking on the freshly polished linoleum.

A dozen Hispanic boys crowded silently into the office, looking confused. One wore soccer cleats with jeans. They were among the 129 kids who’d arrived in the district over the summer.


Since the fall of 2013, more than 270,000 unaccompanied minors have been released to relatives around the country as they wait for immigration hearings. Many have ended up in large cities: 16,000 in Los Angeles; 18,000 in Houston; 20,000 in the Washington, D.C., area.

Thousands more, however, have ended up in small towns like Worthington, where their impact is dramatic.

In those six years, more than 400 unaccompanied minors have been placed in Nobles County — the second most per capita in the country, according to ORR data.

Their arrival has helped swell Worthington’s student population by almost one-third, forcing administrators to convert storage space into classrooms and teachers to sprint between periods, book carts in tow.

“All of our buildings are over capacity,” said Superintendent John Landgaard.


School districts don’t track immigration status but they do keep tabs on English language learners (ELL), who are generally more difficult and costly to educate.

The number of ELL students in Worthington has nearly doubled since 2013, to 35 percent of students. In the high school, where most unaccompanied minors are placed, it has almost tripled.

“They arrive every day, all year long,” said Julie Edenborough, director of migrant services for Guymon Public Schools in Texas County, Okla., the only place to receive more unaccompanied minors per capita than Nobles County. “We’re talking about kids who couldn’t write their own name, who couldn’t hold a pencil.”

School districts like Guymon and Worthington have scrambled to hire Spanish-speaking teachers, who are part educators, part parents, part therapists. {snip}


‘It is racism’

When Don Brink attended high school in the 1960s, Worthington was almost entirely white. But by the end of the century, the population was 20 percent Hispanic: primarily Mexicans drawn to the area’s poultry farms and meatpacking plant.

In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested more than 230 undocumented workers at the plant. Immigrants kept coming, however, mostly from Central America. Today the town is almost two-thirds minority. Hispanics outnumber whites.

While nearby towns have shrunk and their schools have closed, Worthington has grown. Signs in Spanish and Lao now line downtown, where Mexican restaurants compete with a new microbrewery. A Guatemalan flag flies in the window of a store selling soccer jerseys and baby blankets. On a recent afternoon, “Hello” was written on the sidewalk in chalk in 11 languages.

Even as Worthington has changed, however, its tax base still depends largely on white farmers like Brink, pitting the town’s future against its past.

In 2013, when the school district first asked voters to pay for new classrooms amid the influx of unaccompanied minors, those farmers feared they would bear the brunt of the $39 million. The bond referendum failed.

Three years later, when the school district asked for $79 million, some locals felt insulted.


The second referendum was defeated by a 2-1 margin on Nov. 8, 2016 — the same day Donald Trump won 62 percent of the vote in Nobles County.

Attitudes have only hardened since then, as three more referendums have failed. {snip}

“White people here don’t want to pay for people of color and undocumented children to go to school,” said community activist Aida Simon.

The rising tensions reflect broader shifts in the state. Last fall, some Republican candidates called for Minnesota to stop accepting refugees, many of whom are Somali Muslims.

“There was concern among citizens as to the cost of refu­gee resettlement,” said Jeff Johnson, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate who supported a suspension. “Often the answer was ‘you’re racist.’ It shut down the discussion.”

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Father Jim Callahan took to the pulpit at St. Mary’s Church to defend the migrants. As he delivered his sermon, boos echoed off the stained glass windows. {snip}

Another man approached Callahan after a different sermon on immigration and threatened to kill him, the priest recalled. And a stranger at a gas station spit in his face.

“They can call it whatever they want,” Callahan, 69, said of the opposition to expanding the school system, “but the bottom line is that it is racism.”

Members of Citizens for Progress says their concerns are purely financial at a time when farmers are already hurting from flood-damaged crops and the trade war with China.

“On a weekly basis I’m told I hate children,” said Bosma, 37, whose kids go to a private Christian school. “{snip} I look at the bank account at end of the month and say, can I afford another $200 in property taxes this year?”