A Conservative Town Embraces Its Immigrants, Documented or Undocumented

Once famous for gunslingers and cowboys, Dodge City, Kansas, relies on its Hispanic population—and not just for economic survival.
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In western Kansas, railroad construction drew a diverse workforce in the late 1800s, and now the meatpacking industry has done the same.

Photo by Chase Miller/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The middle of the country is more of an immigrant magnet than you would guess from most stories about “flyover country.” The cities and farms of the inland-America expanse from Buffalo [in New York,] Pittsburgh, and Cleveland across to Denver and the mining towns of the Rockies attracted immigrant labor in the late 1800s. The cities, farms, and suburbs of interior America are doing so again now. Minnesota and South Dakota have been important refugee resettlement areas. Almost every sizable city in the Plains states and the Midwest now also has a sizable Hispanic population.

The reasons for the migration differ region by region. In western Kansas, railroad construction drew a diverse workforce in the late 1800s, and now the meatpacking industry has done the same.

In southwestern Kansas, it’s easy to see the demographic age pyramid typical of areas undergoing rapid and ongoing immigration. That is, the younger the age bracket, the larger its Latino proportion. The school age population of Dodge City is 70 to 80 percent non-White, mainly Latino. The town’s population as a whole is more than half Latino. But the business and political leadership, mainly older members of longer-established families, is mainly White. Nothing about this is surprising: Through the long history of U.S. immigration, the first-generation arrivals concentrate on economic survival, leaving broader civic engagement to their children and grandchildren.

This imbalance brings the obvious potential for friction and resentment, of the sort given such clear voice during the 2016 presidential campaign. For instance, the school population looks very different from the people who are paying most of the school taxes and making decisions on the school board. But as we’ve noted throughout this journey, the more ferocious the anti-immigrant passion, the more distant actual immigrants tended to be, and the more theoretical—and, apparently, the more frightening—their menace was.

Put another way: In communities like those in western Kansas, whose economic vitality today and demographic prospects for tomorrow depend on attracting new residents, people have worked out a modus vivendi that resembles ethnic change through America’s past. It has always involved strains, whether with the arrival of the Germans and the Irish in the 1800s, or the Italians and the Slavs at the start of the 1900s, or the Cubans and Filipinos in the middle of the 20th century, or the Vietnamese and Salvadorans near the end, or the groups that have arrived since. Over time, American society has absorbed and flexed—and, in my view, benefited—from being able to accommodate and assimilate newcomers more easily than any other advanced society. That is how western Kansas seemed to us.

Dodge City had long had an ethnically mixed population because of workers who arrived during its cattle drive and railroad heydays in the late 1800s and afterward. But its modern makeup began changing when the big packinghouses started arriving in the early 1980s. The two major operations that dominate Dodge City’s economy are those of Cargill Meat Solutions and National Beef.

“Packinghouse” is a nicer term for what once was called a slaughterhouse, much as “meat solutions” is a nicer name for the company, and “harvesting cattle” is a nicer job description term for the work of putting animals to death, one after another, through the workday. We didn’t push for a look inside the packinghouses during our visits because I have seen places like them before and understand their reality.

The economy that supports the packinghouses defines Dodge City: the associated feedlots that ring the city and in which the animals spend the final months or weeks of their lives, putting on weight; the trucks that roll in nonstop, bearing live animals into the huge buildings on the south side and carrying boxes of cut meat back out; and also the many thousands of people who earn their living inside. Something like a quarter of the beef eaten anywhere in the United States comes through the feedlots, packinghouses, and shipment centers of this corner of Kansas. Large quantities are also shipped overseas.

The employees in these factories are nearly all immigrants. In the 1980s, a substantial number were recent arrivals from Vietnam. Now they’re mainly Mexicans or from Central and South America, plus an increasing number of Somalis and other Africans, plus some Southeast Asians and others. Pay rates vary but are much above minimum wage. For instance, a current listing for a starting position in “beef harvesting” at Cargill offers $15.50 an hour, with medical and 401(k) benefits, in an area where the living costs are very low. The work can, obviously, be unpleasant and extremely hard.

“I can tell you that no matter what wages you paid, you are not going to find any reasonable number of ‘native-born’ Americans who will do those jobs,” stated a man who has been a manager for a large packinghouse in the area; he preferred not to be identified. “Your Anglo community is not going to work there, pretty much regardless of the wage. The entire meatpacking industry depends on immigrant labor, and always has.”

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The syllogism we heard from him and many others was: Without the meatpacking industries, these towns in western Kansas would have withered. Without immigrants, mainly from Mexico, the meatpacking and feedlot industry would not exist. The economic and cultural survival of places like Dodge City and Garden City depends on immigrants, some of whom arrive legally and many of whom don’t. “There are some pockets of people here who are ‘old school,’” the one-time packinghouse manager told us. “They’d like to ‘take America back’ and so on. But by and large, people here—Anglo and Hispanic and otherwise—recognize that we’re in this together. The immigrants are the engine that keeps this community alive.”

“We realize that the future success of the Hispanic community predicts the future success of our community as a whole.”

While we were in Kansas, we saw a study of the meat-based regional economy written by Brian Hanson, who works for a think tank called the Center for Rural Affairs. “Latinos and immigrants are not only bringing population growth to rural America, they are also bringing economic growth,” Hanson noted in the study. “Economists have found that, nationwide, rural counties with larger proportions of Latino populations tend to be better off economically than those with smaller Latino populations. Rural counties with higher proportions of Latinos tend to have lower unemployment rates and higher average per capita incomes.”

In Dodge City, the unemployment rate is among the lowest anywhere in the nation, somewhere below 3 percent. The city has a permanent website listing open positions, called DodgeCityHasJobs.com.

You might argue about the direction of the causal arrows: Are immigrants drawn to areas that already have strong economies? Or do they make economies stronger by their presence? Probably some of both is true. But the result is unmistakable. Across much of the Plains and the rural Midwestern region of the United States, what has kept communities alive is new arrivals, mainly from countries to the south.

I spoke with Greg Ruehle about the cultural side of the changed demographics in Dodge City. Ruehle, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, is CEO of Servi-Tech, a company that helps farmers across the Plains states increase their yields while optimizing their use of fertilizer, pesticides, and water, using technologies that allow precision foot-by-foot monitoring of growing conditions in the fields. Ruehle said that he and his family, who had come to Dodge City three years earlier, found it a great place to live. “It’s an interesting culture, in part because there is such a big immigrant population here,” he told me. “We’re halfway through our son’s third-grade year, and he was the only one in the family who knew the second verse to ‘Feliz Navidad.’ And you know what, that will serve him well!”

“If you ask about the population here, there are two answers,” Ruehle told me. “There is the documented population, that’s one number. The second number includes the undocumented population, which is bigger—we just don’t know how much bigger.

“But Dodge City has found a way to make this work,” he said. “No one fought it in the schools. I’m a pretty conservative guy, but I think we have to keep finding a better way to integrate this diverse population into our economy. If I say it in conservative circles, I might run the risk of somebody heating up the pot of tar, to tar and feather me. But it’s the reality of our town.”

An Anglo former meatpacking employee we met late in our stay summed up what we had heard from others, “The reality here in southwest Kansas is that we are heavily influenced by the Hispanic culture, and not just economically,” he said. “They are part of the fabric of our community. If they decided to pack up and leave, Dodge City would be a ghost town. And we realize that the future success of the Hispanic community predicts the future success of our community as a whole.”

One of those arrivals is Ernestor De La Rosa. When we met him, De La Rosa was the assistant finance director and assistant to the city manager of Dodge City, and a spark plug of civic life there. He is a handsome, slightly built man in his early 30s, most striking on first impression because of his large, dark eyes. If you listened carefully to De La Rosa for a minute or two, you could pick up clues that English was not his first language. But you would have to be listening closely. When De La Rosa arrived in the United States, at age 13, he did not speak or read English at all. He was born and raised in Mexico and first came to the States on a visitor visa. Other members of his family were already in Kansas, working in the meatpacking plants. He eventually joined them in Dodge City; finished high school and then college; got a master’s degree in public administration at Wichita State University, the innovative, leading school in this part of the Plains; and came back to Dodge City.

“We’d like to encourage young families to participate more in city and county affairs, and be more represented in all local events.”

Starting in 2000, De La Rosa and other members of his family got in the queue for a green card. Sixteen years later, he was still waiting. But he was able to work in the United States now because of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration’s 2012 executive order that allows people who arrived before age 16 (as De La Rosa did) to get renewable work permits, and be exempt from deportation, while the U.S. government figures out some longer-term reform to its immigration policy. Of course, this policy was one of several that Donald Trump proposed changing as part of his crackdown on immigration.

“When I arrived, I was still a kid and didn’t think about what was happening,” De La Rosa told us. “I didn’t think, ‘I’m going to a different country, I need to learn a different language.’ I didn’t think about any of that. More than anything, I was enthusiastic about my family and the schools, and the help I got there. I couldn’t be here now”—as a city official, a prominent young member of the city’s new ethnic majority—“without the help and encouragement of my teachers after I arrived.”

I asked De La Rosa whether he consciously thought of himself as part of a transition in the Latino community’s local role.

“We already have many leaders working in many sectors,” he said. “But I am hopeful that there will be more and more. If people see me working for the city, it might encourage others to step up. They might think, ‘I could do that, too.’ We’d like to encourage young families to participate more in city and county affairs, and be more represented in all local events.”

What did he think when he heard the “Build a wall!” chants, which, by the way, were a more typical feature of rallies in New Hampshire or Michigan than of those in places where arrivals from Mexico had mainly congregated? “When we hear things like this,” he answered, “it just sounds so irrelevant. It’s not the story we are seeing here in Dodge City at all.

“Our people here work. They want to establish themselves here in Dodge City. They want to raise their families and have a future. It’s unfamiliar to us, these comments being made on the national level. We are doing everything we can to integrate the newcomers and their families.”

I asked De La Rosa about his long-term ambitions. He said that he hoped eventually to become a city manager, in Kansas or elsewhere. “I’d like to continue to help my community and encourage our Latino and other immigrants that you can do these things, even if you don’t start with the proper documentation,” he said. “I’d like to encourage them to pursue their dreams.”

From the book Our Towns by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows.
 Copyright © 2018 by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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