American Renaissance

How Immigrant Influx Challenged Small Illinois Town

S. Lynne Walker, Copley News Service, Daily Herald (IL), May 16

On winter afternoons, in that sliver of time when twilight divides day from night, Mayor Bob Walters drove along his town’s quiet streets troubled by the changes he feared were coming.

Beardstown was an all-white community of 5,200 people built by German immigrants. No one remembers an African-American ever setting down roots in this town on the banks of the Illinois River.

When Mexican immigrants began flowing into the state for year-round jobs, they, too, bypassed Beardstown.

But in that winter of 1986, Walters could feel the comfortable rhythm of small-town life slipping away. In just two years, three employers had closed their doors, eliminating 500 jobs.

Then the town’s biggest employer — the Oscar Mayer pork slaughterhouse — was shutting down, idling another 820 people. With no hope of finding work, families were leaving town.

Walters, who worked for 18 years as a ham boner at Oscar Mayer, had reservations about what many saw as the salvation of his dying town.

Excel Corp., the second-largest meat packer in America, wanted to reopen the Oscar Mayer plant, and most of the town’s residents thought life would be the way it used to be, with an influx of money, businesses and jobs.

But as a representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Walters had seen what happened when meat packers, operating on profit margins of just 2 percent or 3 percent, opened plants in the rural Midwest.

They hired local folks, but they also recruited immigrants, most of them Mexican. The immigrants weren’t creating towns, as earlier waves of Europeans had done, but were moving into tight-knit communities and bringing new music, foods and holidays — and social problems.

“It had been an all-white, redneck community for 160 years,” Walters said. “For a community like that to have a different ethnic group come in … Well, it’s hard to adjust.”

In June 1987, Excel opened the company’s first pork-processing plant in economically depressed Cass County.

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson signed special legislation waiving the requirement that Excel’s parent company, privately held grain giant Cargill Inc., open its financial records before being allowed to locate in a free enterprise zone at the outskirts of town. Excel received economic benefits that included state funds for job training.

But Beardstown already had a labor force trained in the meat-packing business. With downstate Illinois facing rising unemployment, Excel dropped the starting wage from $8.75 to $6.50 an hour.

Excel hired 250 Oscar Mayer workers. Another 100 employees came from nearby towns. Every day, more than 5,000 hogs were butchered and boxed for shipment.

The money that Excel’s workers earned flowed back into Beardstown’s economy.

Hardee’s and McDonald’s opened franchises. In 1989, Wal-Mart broke ground for a 60,000-square-foot store.

As he left office in 1990, Walters gave his successor some advice.

“I told him, ‘If you don’t stay after Excel, you are going to have a lot of Hispanics and a lot of Asians come in here and take those jobs.’”

“That’s exactly what happened,” he said.

The trickle begins

As Excel stepped up production, worker compensation costs began to soar with injury claims reaching $7.8 million a year by 1994, according to UFCW representative Duke Walters, who is the mayor’s brother.

Workers carved up a 265-pound hog every 4.5 seconds, and in the process often cut themselves with knives, hurt their backs and suffered from repetitive stress injury, Walters said.

Employee turnover was also a problem, he said, hitting 100 percent a year by the mid-1990s. Every week, Excel officials interviewed job candidates, but “they weren’t able to get enough people in the job pool here,” Walters said.

“In order to build the factory and get the people they needed, they had to go outside the area.”

Excel began to look for workers from south of the border. The company, which refused repeated requests for an interview, confirmed in a written statement that, “we have done mobile recruiting in areas of high unemployment where people were looking for work opportunities. This included northern states as well as southern and western.”

They sent recruiters to California, Arizona and Texas, drawing job candidates with spots on Spanish-language radio. Those who passed Excel’s physical exam got a $400 advance and a one-way bus ticket to Beardstown.

Father Eugene Weitzel recalls looking out at his congregation at St. Alexius Catholic Church in 1995 and seeing a handful of Hispanics in the pews. Soon, they were knocking at his door, asking for a Spanish-speaking priest.

School Principal Pam DeSollar remembers a Mexican mother and father walking into her kindergarten office and using hand signals to enroll their 6-year-old son.

“How were we going to talk to this family? How were we going to fill out the forms?” DeSollar said she wondered at the time. “We couldn’t communicate.”

Beardstown natives didn’t understand anything the Hispanics said or did. And the Hispanic families didn’t understand why neighbors complained the mariachi music was too loud or that their lawn had grown taller than Beardstown’s 8-inch limit. Cops were constantly ticketing Hispanics for driving without insurance and driver’s licenses.

But Excel paid employees $150 to recruit new workers, and its Hispanic work force continued to grow. And in town, ambivalence turned to resentment.

In 1996, Beardstown was rocked by its first murder in seven years.

Jorge Arambula, a 28-year-old Mexican who worked at Excel, was accused of fatally shooting Travis Brewer, 22, at the El Flamingo. The next night, a makeshift cross was doused with diesel fuel and set ablaze in front of the bar. Arambula was arrested in Mexico, but he was released after Mexican authorities refused to extradite him to Illinois.

The decision infuriated Beardstown residents.

On Aug. 16, 1996, El Flamingo burned to the ground and anonymous callers warned the owner of Su Casa grocery store his business would be next. He stripped his shelves and closed the store.

When rumors circulated that the Ku Klux Klan was headed to Beardstown, the Mexican community braced for the arrival with its own whispered threat.

“For every one of us they kill,” one Mexican resident remembers people saying, “We’re going to kill five of them.”