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Regional immigrant-support groups meet in Monett

October 26, 2001
By: Julian Pecquet
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - October 26, 2001

Southwest Missouri has seen an even greater surge in Latino immigration than Central Missouri, due in large part to the "Chicken Trail", the numerous chicken processing plants that fuel the area's economy and attract workers from more than 1,000 miles away.

"Missouri plants are advertising all the way down to Mexico and South Texas," said Jerry Edwards, state director of Missouri's Title 1-C program, which receives some of the annual $30 million federal grant for migrant education. Edwards attributes much of the rapidly growing Latino population in the area, which increased almost fourfold since the 1990 Census, to the Latinos' tight family units.

"The man will come, secure a job," Edwards said. "Once he's established he'll send for his family."

Many workers who have come before are undocumented. "But since Sept. 11, the Border Patrol are so much more out now than before," Edwards said. "There's a real tightening."

Edwards is one of more than 90 members of the Ozark Regional Alliance, a consortium of governmental and nongovernmental groups working to ease the immigrants' transition to Southern Missouri. The groups met at Monett's Happy House restaurant on Oct. 26 to cement their partnership.

The language barrier remains the No. 1 problem here for Latino immigrants. The problems faced by Missouri's new residents have been quantified in a research study conducted this Spring by the University of Missouri's Jim Wirth, who distributed his findings at the meeting.

The study shows that 73 percent of Latinos reported needing help in English, and 43 percent of them have a sixth grade education or less. But the language barrier works both ways: 68 percent of the immigrants said no interpreters were available when working for agencies that set up utilities for new homes, which often must be paid for in cash because many Latinos cannot get loans, do not have checking accounts, which require paperwork in English (only 43 percent do have accounts) or say that their landlords are distrustful and ask for hard currency (55 percent report they have problems with the rent.)

And the problem is just as bad with the service providers and community residents who attempt to help Latino population but often cannot understand or identify with its realities.

Karen Johnson, an education consultant for the Title 1-C program, said that Latinos not only were unheard, but often were not even listened to.

"We're making decisions about people who may not have any input," Johnson said.

Racial slurs and tensions between the newcomers and the older residents are another problem; 52 percent of the Latinos reported being discriminated against.

The other problem encountered by the immigrants is finding work. While 41 percent report working for the chicken processing plants, many of them find that money is a problem (52 percent) and many have no insurance at all (62 percent). The chicken plants have very high turnover rates and rarely propose higher paying jobs or promotions.

Enrique Rivera, 48, who has spent 17 years "working with the chickens," agreed.

"This is the country of opportunities, where everyone can find work at whatever age and in whatever physical condition," Rivera said.

The Puerto Rican native now works with CNC Machine Productions.

"I changed jobs because the cold affects the body, the bones," Rivera said. "By law, the processing plant must be kept at 8 degrees Celsius in order to maintain the chicken in good condition."

But Rivera said the cold isn't as bad as the backaches people get from piling crate after crate of chicken parts on top of one another.

The Latino community is also creating new opportunities for Latino entrepreneurs.

Aldo Dominguez, whose family came to the United States from Cuba in 1965, is among those responding to the new demands. The Kansas City lawyer, approached by immigration lawyers from Carthage looking for a Spanish-speaking attorney, has decided to spend his Wednesdays in Monett and his Saturdays in Joplin. Dominguez said he would focus on workers' compensation claims, personal injury, domestic relations and eventually criminal defense but would leave the immigration issues to others.

Participants wrapped up by examining ways to further the community development process. The associations are trying to compete with Kansas City and St. Louis for grants but recognized that these financial opportunities were declining and that the competition was tough.

"We know that grants are down, corporations' grants are down, the money must come from mainstream America, from federal and state funds," said Carol Conway, a real-estate agent who also provides English and Spanish classes in the Ozarks region. "Why should we be excluded from that?"

"Our clients need a political voice," Conway said. "They need representation in Jefferson City. We can lobby for translators, drivers' manuals in Spanish and twelve other languages."

Adolfo Castillo, 55, a retired advocate of Hispanic veterans' issues, drove the point home at the end of the meeting. A Vietnam veteran whose two sons have also served in the military, Castillo's connections with local politicians, especially with Rep. Gary Burton, R-Carl Junction, have enabled him to obtain paperback Spanish translations of Missouri's drivers license manual, which should be available throughout the state.

"You have to deal with the politicians," Castillo said.