The Alabama Town Most Changed (and Saved) by Immigration

From a distance--the perspective from which immigration is too often discussed--this small town seems like an apt illustration of why Alabama should crack down on immigrants. Up close, it's clear immigration is actually saving Russellville.

By Gabriel Thompson Aug 25, 2011

Russellville is a small town in northwest Alabama, the kind of place that most people who grew up an hour’s drive away don’t even know exists. Even by Alabama standards, folks in Russellville take their football seriously. Though the town only has about 10,000 residents, a few years ago its high school became the first in the state to purchase a Jumbotron video screen, at a cost of more than a quarter million dollars.

As with many small towns, when change comes to Russellville it usually comes slow: schools here didn’t integrate until the late 1960s, and until a few months ago the sale of alcohol was prohibited. But in 1989, the construction of a poultry plant unwittingly set Russellville on a course of rapid transformation. Within a few years the area became a magnet for immigrants looking to settle down and raise a family after years of laboring in the tomato fields of Florida.

Today, Franklin County–of which Russellville is the county seat–has the highest percentage of Latinos in the state, primarily a mix of Mexicans and Guatemalans. According to the Census Bureau, Latinos make up 14.9 percent of the county’s population, though the real number is undoubtedly much higher, as undocumented communities are regularly undercounted.

Along with Russellville, the entire state of Alabama has seen a tremendous increase in Latino residents, whose numbers have doubled in the last decade. This growth has in turn generated a backlash from politicians seeking to build their careers upon the backs of undocumented immigrants. In June, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley made history by signing into law what the harshest anti-immigrant bill in the nation. Inspired by Arizona’s SB1070, the bill permits law enforcement to detain people they suspect to be undocumented, allows the state to revoke the business licenses of companies found to be employing unauthorized workers, and makes it a crime to transport someone known to be undocumented. Finally, and most controversially, it forces schools to determine the citizenship status of its students.

The Justice Department has called the law unconstitutional–because it preempts federal authority to regulate immigration, among other reasons–and filed suit against the state earlier this month. A federal judge heard initial arguments in the case on Wednesday. The court will have to move quickly in deciding whether to allow the law to move forward; it takes effect on Sept. 1.

At the bill’s signing ceremony, Bentley was triumphant. "I campaigned for the toughest immigration laws, and I’m proud of the legislature for working tirelessly to create the strongest immigration bill in the country," he said. Other Alabama lawmakers were similarly enthusiastic–and some were downright unhinged. Rep. Mo Brooks, who represents an area near Russellville, has now twice called for doing "anything short of shooting" undocumented immigrants. That’s scary talk anywhere, but particularly in a state with Alabama’s history of racial violence (incidentally, one of Brooks’ district offices is located on George Wallace Boulevard).

From a distance–the perspective from which immigration is too often discussed–Russellville can seem like an apt illustration of why Alabama should crack down on immigrants. The area is poor and suffers from chronic rates of high unemployment. The county’s largest employer is the poultry plant; while many American citizens are without work, hundreds of immigrants, some certainly undocumented, are employed at the plant. This fact is to many an outrage, and it is the sort of thing Rep. Brooks cited to justify his "by any means necessary" strategy of eliminating the brown menace.

As Alabama’s new law attests, politicians around the country are also beginning to zero in on schools. They are convinced that immigrants are overwhelming local educational institutions. In Russellville, it’s certainly impossible to miss the dramatic change in student demographics. Twenty years ago there were three Latino students in the entire district. Now, more than one-third of the student body is Latino. At lower grades the rate is even higher, with 44 percent of kindergartners speaking Spanish or a Mayan dialect as their first language. Most of these children enter school unable to speak English.

So here one has all the ingredients for a story that seems to fit every nightmarish scenario dreamed up by the Pat Buchanans of the world. An impoverished town is overwhelmed with immigrants, who take many of the local jobs and whose kids show up at school in large numbers unable to speak a word of English. It’s the perfect assignment for lazy journalism, the kind of article that can write itself by plugging into predictable narratives. Slap the word INVASION across the screen and you’ve got a special report the likes of which Lou Dobbs–if he hadn’t been booted from CNN–wouldn’t have been able to resist.

Except they’d have the story entirely wrong.

The Real Jobs Problem: Exploitation

Consider the concern about jobs. The massive poultry plant can kill and process nearly 1.5 million birds a week. Day and night, hundreds of immigrant workers can be found slicing up chickens with knives and packing them into boxes to be shipped worldwide. According to proponents of Alabama’s new bill, the plant is the scene of grand larceny, with each undocumented immigrant stealing a job out of the hands of a deserving citizen.

Yet like many abstract arguments against immigration, this quickly falls apart upon examination in the real world. When I relocated to Russellville in 2008, I found that, as a citizen, it was exceedingly easy to "steal" a job back: I was hired within a week after arriving. There was only one test to pass: I took a Breathalyzer in front of a company nurse to prove I hadn’t come to the interview drunk. (And yes, people do fail.)

As I soon learned, the hard part wasn’t getting the job; the hard part was keeping the job. During a single shift I could be asked to tear apart more than 7,000 chicken breasts by hand or carry and dump 30 tons of meat onto an assembly line. The work was painful and unpleasant, with my hands and wrists aching and bits of chicken fat often stuck to my face. To deal with the pain, management had installed machines dispensing various brands of painkillers along one wall of the break room, and during our orientation we were advised to take such pills every four hours.

Within two weeks, most of the people who had gone through the English-language orientation with me had left. This was typical. I learned from a previous employee that during one week the plant had hired 150 new people; that same week, 175 workers quit. During the six weeks I was employed at the plant, new faces appeared every day.

There is a problem here, certainly. The workers are treated as disposable and wages top out at about $10 an hour. Folks work hard for low wages, frequently suffering lifelong injuries in the process. But this isn’t an immigration problem: two-thirds of the workers are American born.

Nor is this is a new problem: work has been brutal ever since the plant opened, originally staffed by an entirely local workforce. At the time, Gov. Gay Hunt heralded the plant’s opening as a watershed moment for economic development in the state. Presumably with a straight face, he argued that the poultry plant ensured "our children won’t have to leave the state to find jobs." Indeed, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were spent to attract Gold Kist, the company that built the plant (Gold Kist was bought by Pilgrim’s Pride in 2006.) To justify the public subsidy, a Gold Kist representative called poultry plant work "the finest-type industry" before adding that many workers would earn just $4.35 an hour.

Today, immigrants have filled open slots–and disproportionately endure the most grueling jobs within the plant, like the de-boning line–but the central story of jobs in Russellville isn’t about immigrants. It’s about dangerous working conditions, poverty wages, and politicians bending over backwards for corporations while getting very little in return for their constituents. Now that’s a crisis Alabama politicians ought to tackle.

More Revival Than ‘Invasion’

So if immigrants aren’t stealing jobs, what about schools? With so many kids entering school and not speaking English, surely the system has come crashing down, right?

Actually, quite the opposite. By fifth grade, Latino students are equal to their peers in math, reading, and writing. (By the fifth grade, they’re also speaking with a flawless Southern accent). Russellville boasts one of the highest graduation rates in the state, at 94 percent. And while Latino students are quickly catching up, immigrant parents are proving to be dedicated partners in improving the school system.

"Hispanic parents serve on our advisory committees and take a lot of pride in our school and system," says George Harper, who is in charge of special education and English learning programs for the district. "They want their kids to find the American dream and think education is essential. We’re getting more support from them than from other parents."

A recent valedictorian at Russellville High was Latino, and Harper believes he’s planning on becoming a doctor.

"It hasn’t been the nightmare everyone thought it was going to be," Harper tells me, though it hasn’t been without challenges. Harper and his group of teachers have struggled to work with students with limited English-speaking skills. "We have to work a little harder to get to the same place," is how he puts it. But the main problem–as is often the case when it comes to education–is funding. "I don’t think we’ve gotten the help that we need from federal and state funding. We’re a whole lot on our own."

Harper says he’s still in the dark about how the new law might affect the district. "We’re in the business of schooling folks, and we’re gonna’ try to keep doing that," he promises. He’s especially concerned because immigrants have always considered school–like church–to be a safe place, where the question of immigration status isn’t broached. Still, he’s hopeful that things will sort themselves out. "Our school starts in mid August and the law goes into effect in September. Maybe by next year cooler heads will prevail."

Just as immigrant parents have brought new energy to the school district, the immigrant community as a whole has thrown a lifeline to the struggling town. Without the influx of new people, Russellville and Franklin County would be shrinking. From 2000 to 2010 the population of the county remained unchanged, but that’s only because the number of Latinos doubled.

Deborah Barnett is the town’s librarian, and her building is located in an area of downtown called "Little Mexico." Across from the library is a string of immigrant-owned shops, selling groceries, furniture and clothing. "Latinos are responsible for most of the revitalization going on," she says. "Before, many of the downtown shops had been boarded up. We didn’t even like to have evening activities here, because the area was so deserted that it didn’t feel safe."

Not far from the library is El Quetzal, a large grocery store named after Guatemala’s national bird. The building had previously been an auto parts store, but had been vacant for years when Pascual Mateo purchased it in 2001. "The front windows were broken and trees had started branching into the store," laughs Mateo. "The first thing we did was clear out the trash. We used a van and carted away 70 loads." Most of the other businesses on the block are also run by immigrant entrepreneurs. Take immigrants out of Russellville and the town suddenly has thousands of square feet of vacant space to fill and plenty of missing tax revenue.

Here, then, is what one will find when examining the "crisis" that led Alabama to pass the nation’s most inhumane immigration legislation. In Russellville–perhaps the single place most affected by immigrants in the entire state–new arrivals have filled open jobs, devoted themselves to education, opened new businesses and replaced a dwindling population. They might have labored for years in Florida, but Russellville is where these immigrants are choosing to lay down their roots. They appreciate the slow pace of life, the religiosity, the affordable housing, the educational opportunities for their children. For them, Russellville has a lot to offer; they have proven that they also have plenty to offer Russellville.

This is not to say that Alabama isn’t without its fair share of problems, many of which find their reflection in Russellville. Alabama is a poor state, with too many people stuck in dead-end jobs, while massive tax breaks are given to the very creators of those jobs. Too often, the only way up is out. It remains to be seen what the children of immigrants will do after graduating high school and college–whether they’ll leave it behind like many have before them or return to help bring more opportunities to the area.

But one thing is clear: Alabama’s problems won’t be solved by cracking down on immigrants. Take immigrants out of a town like Russellville and such problems don’t go away, they get worse. Without immigrants, Russellville would turn into an aging ghost town. Storefronts in the business district would shutter. Companies would go out of business. Schools would lose children eager to learn and parents eager to assist. Russellville would become a shell of itself: less dynamic, less bustling, less entrepreneurial, less diverse. The same could be said, of course, of the country as a whole.

Gabriel Thompson is currently working on a biography of legendary community organizer Fred Ross. He is the author of Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do, just released in paperback from Nation Books.