Midwest farm town, transformed by immigration, thrives

Wed Jun 20, 2012 8:34am EDT
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By Mary Wisniewski and Christine Stebbins

BEARDSTOWN, IL (Reuters) - Two years ago, Bozi Kiekie taught English at a university in the Congo. Although he liked his work, he wasn't earning enough to make a good life for his family.

So Kiekie, 44, entered a lottery for one of 55,000 annual visas to enter the United States. When he won a so-called diversity visa, he came to Illinois, where he found a job cutting out hog tongues at the meatpacking plant in Beardstown, a small river town about 200 miles southwest of Chicago.

"Leaving a teaching position and pulling tongues - that's a big gap," said Kiekie, who talks with his wife and three young children by Skype or phone every day. But he said he and the other immigrant workers at Cargill's pork plant - more than 900 of them from 34 countries - are willing to work hard at just about anything for a better life in the United States.

The Cargill plant and the community that depends on it are emblematic of two changes in U.S. immigration. The first is the shift of job-seeking immigrants from big cities like Chicago and New York to rural and suburban areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The second is the crackdown on illegal immigration, primarily affecting workers from Mexico and Central America. Companies looking for legal labor are increasingly hiring workers with diversity visas, offered via a lotto system to countries with low immigration to the U.S. or refugee status from a variety of nations, according to immigration experts.

This has created challenges for small communities like Beardstown, which first had to adapt to one new language - Spanish and a mostly Mexican culture - and now have to deal with dozens of new cultures, said Mark Grey, professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa and director of the Iowa Center for Immigration Leadership and Integration.

"People were screaming for years, 'We want a legal workforce!' They're getting it," Grey said.

20,000 HOGS A DAY   Continued...

A cowboy rides a horse through town as he watches a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Beardstown, Illinois, May 6, 2012. There are approximately 900 immigrant workers from 34 countries employed in Beardstown at the Cargill meat packing plant and most are willing to work hard at just about anything for a better life in the United States. While both native community residents and immigrants agree that most people accept the newcomers, the beginnings were rocky and some problems remain. Picture taken May 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young