November 21, 2005


Hispanic Heartland (Mark Houser, November 20, 2005, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

Fifteen years ago, Lexington was mired in the farm crisis and bleeding population when a meatpacking plant opened in a vacated factory on the outskirts of town.

The new plant, now owned by Tyson Foods, offered jobs for people in town who wanted them. But like meatpacking plants throughout the Midwest, most workers here are Hispanic migrants, for whom the work is a step up from low-paying farm and construction jobs.

In 1990, the year the plant opened, 329 Hispanics lived in Lexington. Within a decade, more than 5,000 lived there, and the town suddenly was 51 percent Hispanic.

And they keep coming, lured by $10-an-hour wages, replacing those whose stamina succumbs to a disassembly line that slaughters 4,000 cattle every day.

Manager Mark Sarratt figures he brings in 20 to 25 new workers each week to replace those leaving. Over a year, that works out to more than 1,000 jobs, half the plant's payroll.

About 80 percent of the plant's employees are Hispanic. Sarratt said Tyson recruits legal Hispanic workers in the Southwest, but not outside the country.

When immigration agents scoured the plant's payroll in 1999, nearly 200 workers quit rather than explain inconsistencies in their documentation. But the enforcement stirred up such an outcry -- led by the Republican governor -- that no further sweeps have been conducted.

As Hispanics poured in, Lexington's population of non-Hispanics dropped from 6,300 to 4,900 during the last decade.

Most left for Omaha, Lincoln, or spur towns to the east or west along Interstate 80. Others moved nine miles south to Johnson Lake, once a tiny haven for summer cottages, now a burgeoning suburb.

"I can remember when every house on the street was for sale except ours and our neighbor's," said Barry McFarland, 29. [...]

A spate of crimes -- including car-theft rings, a rise in methamphetamine traffic and occasional gunplay -- surged in Lexington with the first immigrants, mostly young men.

"I don't care if the guy's pink or purple or blue or green, the age group that's 18 to 29 commits 60 percent of the crime," said longtime Dawson County Sheriff Gary Reiber.

A footbridge over the goose pond in the city park is marred with gang graffiti, and police say L.A. and Mexican street gangs have members in Lexington.

Things have calmed in recent years, now that more immigrants are families putting down roots, Reiber said.

Around midnight on a warm Friday in September, it was so tranquil that a report of three teens drinking in their van outside a KFC immediately brought two police cruisers and a sheriff's deputy.

City manager Joe Pepplitsch said new residents have filled city tax coffers and helped local merchants. The city started collecting a 1.5 percent sales tax nine years ago, and revenues are up from $776,000 then to $1.8 million this year, he said.

"The meatpacking plant, from an economic standpoint, saved this community," Pepplitsch said.

Hispanic immigrants have opened grocery stores, restaurants and a tortilla bakery in town. The local Wal-Mart stocks yucca root and tomatillos, tripe, even non-alcoholic sangria. On the book rack is a phrase book with useful sentences printed phonetically: "ai uork at e POLtri farm," and "uir going tu insTAL a niu FIDing trof." [...]

One especially dismaying adjustment for Lexington is sports. The high school football and basketball teams, once competitive, are now perennial losers.

Exploding enrollment pushed the teams up to a tougher division, but most of the new kids don't play anything but soccer. Playing for the "Minuteman" has limited appeal, considering volunteers of the same name now patrol the Mexican border for illegal aliens.

Things may be changing slowly. In September, the football team finally broke an 18-game losing streak.

Longtime fan Pam Samway cheered for the boys and said she isn't concerned to see so few immigrants in the stands or on the field.

"We'll acclimate 'em to it," she said. "This is America. They're just new."

Well, soccer is a downside.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 21, 2005 4:40 PM

Another downside is that these are dead end jobs that will end in the future via mechanization or movement to other countries, leaving the US with alot of unemployed and unemployable laborers from Mexico, who will react with the same ingenuity and inventiveness as the Mariutania and Ivory Coast immigrants have in France. Other than that there are few downsides.

Posted by: h-man at November 21, 2005 5:45 PM


I tend to disagree.

1. they are Christian, not Islamic.
2. Their Kids seem to be doing a pretty good job at assimilating. Most of my former tennants have their own businesses


I'm not the immigration dove that I used to be, but the "welfare magnet" and "drain on resources" arguments are pretty thin.

Posted by: Bruno at November 21, 2005 5:54 PM

No, they won't. We're always going to have unfilled service jobs, so a necessity for immigrants, while their kids will move on to real jobs.

Posted by: oj at November 21, 2005 5:56 PM

It would make more sense to move this type of job to Mexico itself and pay the workers there the same (or near) wages they pay here. It would obstensibly lead to the same benefits for Americans with none of the disadvantages.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at November 21, 2005 6:04 PM

Is this profile, including the crime and soccer, any different than that of dozens of ethnic groups that have come before? Well, maybe not the soccer.

Posted by: Peter B at November 21, 2005 7:11 PM

Chris and H-man,

Moving this sort of job to Mexico would actually be at least two steps backward, even worse than having these plants in previous urban areas like Omaha and Chicago. These plants are in places like Lexington because the feedlots that supply them are right next door.

As a former NE resident, I notice that Lexington does not have the problem a similar city (West Point) had in getting the Hispanics to understand that flouridated water is safe to drink! The Hispanics, used to bottled fluids of all sorts, kept getting bleeding gums from drinking the tap water.

Posted by: Brad S at November 21, 2005 8:17 PM

Things may be changing slowly. In September, the football team finally broke an 18-game losing streak.

Yes, to Ogallala, who ought to hang their heads in shame at having lost to a bunch of soccer players.

BTW, South Sioux City is another Nebraska town that has a large Hispanic population. I once was stuck in that town and had to attend Mass at a peculiar hour, and the only Catholic church I could find was a Hispanic one. Fun atmosphere but it would've been nice to understand what the priest was saying.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at November 22, 2005 1:49 AM

By the way, Nebraskans are mostly a tolerant lot but the surest way to get us antsy is to suggest that soccer -- soccer! -- is replacing our beloved high-school football as the preferred sport in some of our educational establishments. Immigration proponents better keep this under the table.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at November 22, 2005 1:53 AM

In the future, there will be fewer jobs in the meatpacking industry due to mechanization, but the automation will be driven by fewer workers being available, it won't be that automation drives out marginal workers.

There's a pretty big labor shortage coming down the pike, and it'll be in full swing by 2020, despite Latin immigration.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 22, 2005 2:30 AM