K-State immigration study focuses on southwest Kansas





Garden City is the subject of an immigration study being conducted by a professor at Kansas State University.

Matthew Sanderson, an associate professor of sociology who studies international migration, is completing a study on Hispanic immigrants living in the southwestern Kansas communities of Garden City, Liberal and Ulysses.

"I came to Garden City because it's well-known. It's fairly well-studied as what's called a 'new destination' community in the United States, for Hispanic and Latino immigrants. But it's also an older, new destination, if that makes sense, because most of the new destination communities that we know about really sprung up in the '90s, and Garden City really got started in the '80s, so you can look at the longer-term effect of immigrant assimilation in Garden City because the inflow started earlier," Sanderson said.

The term "new destination" refers to areas that are a relatively new gateway for immigration into the U.S. Older destinations for immigrants are typically larger metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston and Miami.

Sister Janice Thome, of the Dominican Sisters Ministry of Presence, who works with migrant families, said she thinks much of what draws immigrants to Garden City, aside from employment opportunities, is that it is more welcoming than larger metropolitan cities. She said because of that welcoming atmosphere, many immigrants tell friends and family members who have remained in their countries of origin about it, resulting in an even greater influx of immigrants.

The purpose of Sanderson's study about immigration to rural towns is two-fold: One purpose is to learn about the work backgrounds and employment histories that immigrants bring to the U.S., and the other is to understand how those employment histories help provide immigrants with prospects of upward mobility once in the U.S.

Sanderson said that while a large percentage of the Hispanic immigrant labor market in Garden City is made up of Tyson employees, it also consists of many service-sector employees.

"... Everything from a cashier at a store to the higher-end sector, like the legal profession, doctors, those sorts of things. So the people we spoke with were working in a variety of sectors," he said.

Sanderson said a couple of things stood out to him about Garden City's immigrants, in particular.

"The first was just how many skills, talents and abilities immigrants really do bring into the labor market in the United States. We commonly hear about immigrants as a drain, a burden, a challenge, in terms of coming into the labor market of the United States. But when you look at their employment backgrounds, their labor market histories, what you find is that they actually bring a tremendous wealth of employment experience, job skills, labor market skills, into the U.S. labor market and that's being applied in places like Garden City," he said. "The second finding is when you ask Hispanic immigrants about how they feel about their prospects, they generally give you a very rosy picture of life in Garden City, and that's also a bit surprising because many of them are working in jobs that most folks would consider to be less desirable. But the vast majority of them talk abut their jobs and their situations in Garden City as meeting their needs and providing means for upward mobility."

The city of Garden City's cultural relations board intends to use some of Sanderson's findings to enhance integration efforts in the community.

Thome said it is the welcoming stance taken by the city when beef packing plants first came to the area in the 1980s that has laid much of the groundwork for where Garden City currently is, in terms of cultural integration.

Angelica Castillo-Chappel, former cultural relations board member who immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, with her parents at the age of 14, said she believes the city does a good job of integrating the Hispanic culture and other cultures into the community, and that it's oftentimes immigrants themselves who don't take advantage of the resources made available to them.

"The huge factor is educating the immigrant community, and Garden City has done a good job," Castillo-Chappel said. "A lot of immigrants in Garden City, they aren't aware of the mediums of communication available, so that's our job as board members or advisory boards — to make sure people are aware of it."

She said her own father, Salvador Castillo, was an accountant in Mexico, but he believed better opportunities for he and his family existed in the U.S., prompting him to move his family to the area 25 years ago.

"We're coming here for a better opportunity, to learn the language and be successful," she said.

Thome said for more recent immigrants, packing plants or agricultural jobs are good places to start.

"And as they learn the culture, if they have some expertise in their own country, they can follow up with education," she said.

Sanderson said the fact that Garden City is what he refers to as an older, new destination provides a glimpse into the longer-term prospects for immigrants in rural areas.

"The picture maybe doesn't look as bad as it's often painted in the national media," he said. "Social science is very clear on what's happening in these places, so hopefully, reason will prevail at some point. And that's my job as a social scientist, not to try to pick sides in this debate over immigration — and there are sides to it — but to try and really find out what are the causes for immigration into particular places, and secondly, what are the consequences for immigrants themselves."

Sanderson anticipates having the study published in the next couple of months.

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