MANHATTAN, KS -- An exploration into the public discourse surrounding the integration process of immigrant workers in Kansas ultimately raised more questions than it answered, found one Kansas State University researcher.
Laszlo Kulcsar, associate professor of sociology, examined Hispanic immigration hot spots in southwest Kansas, specifically in cities with large meatpacking plants. Historically these cities, he said, see a larger increase in population as well as more cultural diversity because of the jobs offered at the packing plants.
"I started out looking at how predominantly white communities, even with some historical diversity, embraced new immigrant workers," Kulcsar said. "This is a big deal in Kansas because there really isn't a universal practice for that. What was found was that there is no good model, just more questions."
Along with Albert Iaroi, K-State doctoral student in sociology from Romania, Kulcsar also looked at Emporia, a city away from the meatpacking triangle in southwest Kansas but also with a large concentration of minority workers.
"Emporia has a well-established Hispanic community already because they came to work on the railroad 100 years ago," Kulcsar said. "In 2006, though, Tyson brought about 700 Somalis to Emporia to work at its meatpacking plant."
With the Somalis came a new culture and religion, vastly different from that of the Hispanics, the dominant minority at the time.
Despite the fact that all the Somali workers carried legal work permits, researchers found many in the community rejected these new workers because of their outsider culture. At the same time they began to view the Mexicans as regular, hardworking people.
"It started to become 'good immigrants' versus 'bad immigrants' based on visible things like skin color, dress and religious practices," Kulcsar said. "Somalis are black; they are Muslim. The Mexicans, even though they have a different culture and language, are still Christians."
There was also the difference in customs, Kulcsar said. The Somalis traveled in large groups, a customary practice in their country due to safety. Although women hold positions of authority in Emporia, the Somali workers often did not obey them since only men in Somalia are authority figures.
"Nobody told the Somalis you don't do these things in America, and nobody told the local government about their customs and religion in advance, so nobody told the community members. The question became, 'whose job is it to educate the refugees and community,'" Kulcsar said. "This was a troubling finding because these larger actors -- corporations and nongovernmental charity organizations playing an important part in the settlement of the Somalis -- failed to communicate with the city government."
As community members in Emporia questioned the city's role in this process, they found they were given no advance information about it, Kulcsar said.
"Historically corporations seldom informed local government of their actions as employing immigrants was seen as a business decision and not a community issue," he said.
"Immigrants are not showing up for work in a random fashion; in many cases national organizations are working with large corporations to bring these people here for jobs," Kulcsar said.
After Tyson eliminated more than 60 percent of its meatpacking operations in Emporia, the company relocated all 700 Somalis almost overnight to plants in other areas. Kulcsar said this left the Mexican workers, some of whom may not have legal work permits, as the dominant minority again.
"The question now is if the perception is going to go back to being unfavorable toward Mexicans because the Somalis are gone," Kulcsar said.
The findings of Kulcsar and Iaroi will be published in an upcoming book, "Latin American Migrations to the U.S. Heartland: Reshaping Communities, Redrawing Boundaries," a collection of studies about immigrant integration in the Midwest.