Earlier this week I was visiting friends in Morganton and Valdese, NC, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Morganton is fortunate. It has a chicken plant that is still operating. Who are the workers? Latino/a immigrants. No one else wants the job.
Morganton is also the home of the deceased, venerable U.S. Senator Sam Ervin, Jr. chairman of the Watergate Committee, who claimed, “I’m just an ‘ole country lawyer from Dixie” as he brought his constitutional law prowess to bear on a presidency gone amok. Ervin brought government jobs to Morganton. There is a vibrant downtown with galleries, shops, businesses, and cheap labor to clean homes, landscape yards and government school lawns and chickens. The local furniture and textile industry moved their plants off-shore to Asia years ago. Their empty shells are a reminder of employment loss and the end of traditional prosperity.
Valdese has Hmong and Latino/a immigrants, lots of Asian restaurants, and a very multicultural feel to the very small town that was alive with furniture manufacturing. The store fronts are empty. The rails are silent. Latinos wait in the parking lot in front of one of the two town laundromats. The summer Waldensian festival the second weekend in August still draws people from far and wide. There are great ceramic artists in these hills, too.
I had lunch with a local coach. He told me, painfully, how some of his most talented students, both academically and athletically, are children of undocumented Mexican immigrants who, for the most part, crossed the border to escape drug war violence. The children may have come here as infants or toddlers and will never be able to attend university unless they pay out-of-state tuition — which, of course, they can’t afford. In-state tuition requires residency which requires a birth certificate or social security card. The young people are working hard to get out from under fast food service jobs, the line up for chicken plant employment or at the day labor pool corner. Their eyes are downcast, can see down the short stretch to the dead-end before they reach age 20.
He told me how his politics have changed. He sees first hand how wrong it is for smart children with promise who have been in the U.S. for most of their lives not to have access to education. We, as a society, keep them down and then complain that they can’t get up and take care of themselves. Catch 22 comes to my mind.
We are a multicultural and blended society. Soon, people of color will outnumber whites. Bilingual signage is appearing everywhere, not just in bigger cities or airports. We are going to need to teach Spanish in our schools starting in early childhood if we are going to understand each other and communicate and problem-solve.
In the most rural areas of North Carolina immigrants are part of the labor pool and contributing to local economies. We reward them with shame, fear, discrimination, and entrap and then incarcerate them as undocumented immigrants even when they try to return to Mexico.
I wonder what Senator Sam would say?
What would you say?