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Ethnic Diversity in America's Heartland

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Franz Strasser | 23:48 UK time, Thursday, 22 July 2010

I move on from Emporia and head five-and-a-half hours west to Garden City, Kansas, where some of the Somali refugees who left Emporia two years ago went next.

I see where they work, where they live and where they learn English and other necessary skills.

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What do you think about refugees doing jobs other people don't want to do?


  • Comment number 1.

    First and foremost, this was a great report. Well done to the young journalist! My parents were also refugees from Ethiopia and my mother worked at a poultry packing plant for 12 years before it shut down and she was laid off.

    Now, to the issue of my fellow responders, especially the xenophobic buffoons who don't seem to understand the English language any better than the immigrants in the video who needed translators. Some of the previous posters seem to imply that Americans would indeed take these jobs, IF they paid more. I don't know if I should laugh or cry at such stupidity! Not taking a job because it doesn't pay enough is precisely the definition of NOT TAKING A JOB! The wages are part of the job. These immigrants are willing to do inglorious and dangerous jobs for very low pay, while other Americans are not. It's as simple as that.

  • Comment number 2.

    I worked in Iowa for a company who developed software for the swine industry. I received quite an education from the local pig farms as well as from a number of the meat packers including the poultry industry.

    Jobs that paid well for the local Iowa farm boys where being systematically lost to low wage un-educated Illegals.

    It is not true that American's will not do the job Illegals have claimed, American's just demand being paid a reasonable wage. In time the Illegals will demand a living wage and they to will be systematically replaced.

    The American born worker is one of the most productive workers in the world, we just want a living wage.

    Working in the pig barns, slaughter houses and meat packing is difficult work but it is work that Americans (native born) has done for generations.

    It is the Corporations that run these businesses that have an appetite for greed that is the reason Americans want work because of the wage issue.

    Give Americans a break. This story shows the author not to be well informed.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great piece. In my opinion, I think one of the things this highlights is how a strong social services network can make a difference. I was impressed, not only with the woman helping immigrants get settled in Garden City, but with the outreach programs offered by Tysons and the local community college. I would be interested to find out how those immigrants compare with communities that have less effective transitional programs.

  • Comment number 4.

    "What do you think about refugees doing jobs other people don't want to do?"

    Those jobs used to be done by US citizens who were union members receiving good pay. The large corporations decided to import illegal aliens whom they paid much less. I think the union executives should be incarcerated for cheating and the illegal aliens should be sent packing. Most Americans would be willing to pay the extra few cents it would take to put Americans back to work instead at union wages instead of extending their unemployment benefits so corporations could make a few more cents cheating.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm afraid you've gone of the rails, @Stakeholder and pgillenw. The immigrants in Franz's piece are legal. They are refugees. The fact that you both refer to illegal aliens demonstrates that your biases are clouding your perspective.

    The higher wages issue you both raise is more interesting, but misleading. While "native born" Americans (of which any child born in the US of immigrant parents would be, by the way) did do these jobs, they didn't do them for more money. Look up sharecropping. Or the depression. Or the dust bowl. Throughout US history there are examples of people (native or immigrant) being shortchanged but doing the work because the other option was starvation. We will get there if our economy doesn't improve. But it's not a place we want to be.

  • Comment number 6.

    Quite by accident I have discovered and so enjoyed your series on my country and the issue of immigration.
    You have captured the beauty, complexity, and free-wheeling nature of our society. Prior to my retirement I served as a bilingual counselor for non English speaking school age children--their "Americanization" is a story unto itself. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • Comment number 7.

    Refugees are NOT "illegal aliens". Refugees have legal immigration status and work authorization for an indefinite period of time. They are persons who meet the UN definition of a refugee, that is, someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country". Refugees have often fled from horrific circumstances and have lived in refugee camps in limbo for many years, waiting for another country to accept them. The vast majority of refugees count themselves lucky to be accepted in their country of refuge (in this case, the United States), and all they want to do is rebuild their lives. Refugees are hard-working and diligent people who are helping contribute to our economy and adding to the cultural richness and diversity of our country, which was built by waves upon waves of immigrants.

    As for the issue of pay, many refugees who work in the meat-packing industry do make a decent, living wage. I happen to work with refugees in the Kansas City area. A large number of these refugees work at a meat-packing plant and earn over $12.00 per hour and are eligible for benefits after 6 months. I'm not advocating for the meat-packing industry, because I believe there are many negative issues in that industry, safety being a primary one. However, one cannot say that $12.00 is not a living wage. Yes, it is hard and dangerous work, but native-born Americans also have the same opportunity, and refugees are not "taking" the jobs away from them. These businesses have to go to greater lengths to accommodate the needs of people with limited English proficiency; their willingness to pay interpreters to train people properly shows that they value the hard work of their refugee (and immigrant) employees. Furthermore, meat-packing has never been dominated by American-born workers. The industry was built on the backs of whichever immigrant group was the most recent arrivals - mainly from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe in the early 1900s.

    Please get your terms and your historical facts correct before bringing down an entire categorization of people who are, in fact, deserving of a little bit of respect.

  • Comment number 8.

    This is all a mixed up, misled and gullible nation, that through the conservative republican propaganda of terror hype, fomentation of hate, fear, republican patriotic feeding frenzy a boondoggle. There is of course economic error, ideological divide and polarization that has never encountered before, at least not to this extend All leading to the country being its own worst enemy and destroyed at fast track from within.

    The current name of the game by these malignant narcissists, chronic scape goating, conservative republicans, with their perversity of inequality and rights only of there kind is to scape goat these so called illegals and or undocumented. Some 20 million of them just did not walk across the US boarders in the last 18 months. Most of them have been here over a decade. During 8 years of Bush / Cheney secret govt. of executive privilege absolutely nothing was done. Other then their use, abuse and exploitation for cheap labor, and mostly by the same folks that belly ache about them being here.

    The whole thing is a political facade because these conservative republicans bigots and racists just cannot stomach a black man as being president of this nation.

    The whole agenda perpetuates down from the US Supreme Court, with its conservative republican domination and the rest of the hierarchy that controls money and power.

    The evidence of this deliberate malfeasance, down right Nazi type propaganda and bigotry is far more predominant in rural USA, then urban metropolitan areas of the nation. It is highly infective in states with conservative republican good old boys net work and their strong holds. Where racism and discrimination is institutional. It is endemic is a sense of its mind set, perpetual old entitlement status quo of the old establishment that is ingrained in the system for over many decades.

    The fault line is in the established two party political system and the dysfunctional and unrepresentative Congressional System. In particular as it applies to two Senators from each state and their six year terms. The Senate therefore being the most dysfunctional, inefficient and unrepresentative body. Plus the NINE US Supreme Courts Justice appointed for life, who interpret the Constitution every third days as per the political prevailing wind and the corrupt to the hilt US Congress. In which 89% of the US population has no confidence.

    All the rest is academic and expandable.

  • Comment number 9.

    Well said, comments 7 autumn leaf and 8 chui.

    I've lived well over half my 6-decade life outside the country where I was born. But this is by choice - for many refugees there was no choice: escape or die, and I don't really think many people go for the dying option.

    What so many modern Americans forget is where they came from: very few are of native Indian stock; very very many came from Latino or Asiatic countries or from Europe and old Europe - including my forebears.

    The modern ranting xenophobia (see comment 8 above) is fuelled by very uninformed media reporting from badly educated people So it is a real pleasure to come across this neutral BBC piece where the reporter is going into a place to see what it's really like, and not what he thinks in advance it's going to be like. There is little spin.

    Here's strength to your elbow, Franz Strasser. Keep reporting!!

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm from Kansas and I am proud of the diversity in our state. Most don't think of Kansas as diverse, but communities like Garden City serve as a model for other places around the world. Garden City has embraced the differences of the people who have come for a better life and provided a community where people can learn, work and live together while tearing down racial and ethnic barriers and bias. I'm impressed! Thank you for sharing!

  • Comment number 11.

    Dear Franz,
    I was wondering what happened to the comments that people left on this topic yesterday. They somehow seem to have disappeared. If this is by design, then I am very disappointed that during your travels in the US you have not gotten a good understanding of the most cherished American value, freedom of speech.

    As to your question, refugees do the jobs that other people don't want to do because they don't have any other choice. They need the work and they have less options due to their recent arrival and lack of language skills.

    The real question that begs to be asked though is "Why are there jobs that American don't want to do?". The reason is that in some industries, the working conditions and wage compensation have been purposely deteriorated by employers. I suggest that you read "Blood, Sweat, and Fear" published by Human Rights Watch in 2005. This report, in which Tyson is mentioned by name on several occasions, highlights that there are systematic human rights violations in the American meat industry.

    There is a whole chapter dedicated to immigrant workers. They are victimized by these companies because employers take advantage of their fear of deportation by making them work in horrible conditions that only serve one thing: employer profits. Now, how does this relate to America at large? Well, the constant stream of new immigrants ensures that these companies always have a labor force that is more desperate and willing to work for less. Consequently, "U.S. citizens and legal foreign-born workers in low wage occupations suffer downward pressure on their own wages and working conditions from the influx of immigrant workers who are too fearful to exercise workplace rights to organize and bargain for higher wages."

    Please note that I am quoting Human Right Watch and not some republican right wing propaganda. I have nothing against immigrant workers because they are obviously just doing what they need to do to survive. The problem is that we have given too much leeway to the employers which ultimately results in a situation where ALL worker rights are jeopardized. That includes both American and immigrant workers.

  • Comment number 12.

    I think it is wonderful that refugees can find employment in the United States with the help of the government and its relocation program. The problem is that there are too many native born Americans out of work who right now would work for the same pay in a heart beat to put food on the table for their children and themselves. American are not selfish by nature or we wouldn't have such a large population, but during this economic depression Americans need are getting quit bitter about immigrants taking their jobs, I for one think they have a right to be bitter.

  • Comment number 13.

    Thank you for the report on immigrants seeking a better life in the U.S. First of all, let me say that I am an immigrant who came to this country some thirty years ago. Granted I did not come as a refugee or an illegal immigrant; I came to the United States as a student. Nonethe less, I too have seen the tough circumstances that immigrants have to put up with when they first arrive in this country. I worked for some time in a restaurant, cleaning the floors and taking out the trash. Of course life in America is changing. Today there are many more immigrants--both legal and illegal. Most of the new immigrants are coming from Mexico, and most of them are illegal. The economic situation in the world has changed--globalization has taken effect, much of what is produced in the world today is produced in such places like China. Joblessness in the U.S. has increased with the export of so many jobs being to India and other places. Yet the promise of a better life still holds true in America. In this country--and in this country only--can you find the kind of welcome that one finds coming here. Yes, there is a rising backlash against immigrants--mainly Mexicans. However, it has been my experience that Americans are by far the most friendly and generous people on the face of the earth. Of course, I am talking about the ordinary, god-fearing, Americans and not the propagandized ones who have become saturated with the vitriolic diatribe of the extremist media elements such as Fox News. Americans still have a lot of respect for people who come here legally, work hard, and play by the rules. Yes, if you are an immigrant you will start at the bottom and have to work your way up. That is what I had to do. By the way, I came from the Caribbean. Yes you will have to endure some hardships such as discrimination, learning a new language perhaps, and starting out in an apaertment rather than in a house. Reminds me of a character, a father from Sandra Cisneros' book, House on Mango Street, who, after many years in the United States, and after managing to pull himself up by his boot strap, so to speak, triumphantly declares, "Ham and eggs. For six months straight all I eat was ham and eggs." The moral of the story is that America still is the land of promise, a land of opportunity, where anyone--A Barak Obama, a Arnold Swartzneiger, a me can come and still rise to join the tide of mainstream life in the U.S. The opportunities are fewer. Economic times are tougher. There are a fewer less factories. But the American dream can still be realized for those who are willinhg to risk it, to work hard, and to play by the rules.

    God, bless the United States of America!

  • Comment number 14.

    By the way, can I please just add that after 30 years in the United States, I live in an upper-middle class surburb in Atlanta, teach in the public school system and as a professor both at a religious institution (seminary) and a college. And, please--before anyone thiks that I am a flag-toting, flag-waving apologist for America--I am not. I am just as proud of my native land and Africa, my ancestral home, as I am of America. I believe that America is great, but with God, all things are possible

  • Comment number 15.

    This is a lovely story! Some of my own immigrant ancestors went to Kansas around 150 years ago, looking for religious freedom. Now I am a non-EU immigrant to the UK, which gives me a whole new perspective on the issues and controversies surrounding immigration. Fortunately, I come from an English speaking country and I have recently taken lessons in both Italian and French. I can tell you first hand how extraordinarily difficult it is to learn a new language as an adult, and I wish all immigrants luck in their quest to find a better life. It is why I came here, and I don't regret it for one minute.

  • Comment number 16.

    Hey...what happened to the previous comments?

    Is the BBC deleting comments wholesale now?

    Anyway, a previous commentor wrote this:

    "Please note that I am quoting Human Right Watch and not some republican right wing propaganda. I have nothing against immigrant workers because they are obviously just doing what they need to do to survive. The problem is that we have given too much leeway to the employers which ultimately results in a situation where ALL worker rights are jeopardized. That includes both American and immigrant workers."

    These same employers are given small fines when workers are discovered to be in the U.S. without valid papers. [IE - illegals]

    These small fines do nothing to stop them from not only advertizing but encouraging ANYone to apply for a job.

    Will Americans work for lower wages. Yes, but don't expect TYSON or other employers to give them company provided housing. NO that is reserved for immigrants only. And even then only if those immigrants have no other place or funds to stay outside of the "company facilities".

    Reverse discrimination is destroying America and has created a permenant underclass of Americans that are awarded welfare in order to get their votes. Guess who engineered and accomplished this. If you said the democrats you would be correct.

    This has to change.

    Read this introduction to a government document:

    "With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress sought to eliminate the problems of segregation and discrimination in the United States. The impetus for the Act was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which challenged the denial of the right of Blacks to participate equally in society.

    The employment title of the Act — Title VII — covers employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or protected activity. Title VII’s prohibitions against race and color discrimination were aimed at ending a system in which Blacks were “largely relegated to unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.” (1) However, Congress drafted the statute broadly to cover race or color discrimination against anyone – Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Arabs, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, persons of more than one race, and all other persons.(2)

    Today, the national policy of nondiscrimination is firmly rooted in the law.(3) In addition, it generally is agreed that equal opportunity has increased dramatically in America, including in employment. Blacks and other people of color now work in virtually every field, and opportunities are increasing at every level.

    Yet significant work remains to be done. Charges alleging race discrimination in employment accounted for 35.5 percent of the Commission’s 2005 charge receipts, making race still the most-alleged basis of employment discrimination under federal law.(4) In addition, several private studies conducted in the early 2000s provide telling evidence that race discrimination in employment persists. A 2003 study in Milwaukee found that Whites with a criminal record received job call-backs at a rate more than three times that of Blacks with the same criminal record, and even at a rate higher than Blacks without a criminal record.(5) A 2003 study in California found that temporary agencies preferred White applicants three to one over African American applicants.(6) And, a 2002 study in Boston and Chicago found that résumés of persons with names common among Whites were 50 percent more likely to generate a request for an interview than equally impressive résumés of persons with names common among Blacks.(7)

    Moreover, racial and ethnic disparities still exist in the labor market. People of color are more likely than Whites to work in lower-paying jobs and less likely to work in higher-paying jobs.(8) Unlawful employment discrimination is one of the reasons for these disparities. Therefore, vigorous law enforcement, and proactive prevention of discrimination – i.e., enhanced outreach, education, and technical assistance to promote voluntary compliance – remain critical to ensuring that race and color play no part in employment decisions.

    The purpose of this Manual Section is to provide guidance on Title VII’s prohibition against workplace discrimination based on race or color.(9) It discusses coverage issues, the importance of conducting a thorough investigation, various employer practices, and remedies for a violation.(10) The Manual Section includes numerous examples, as well as guidance reflecting the Commission’s strong interest in proactive prevention and “best practices.”(11)


    Title VII prohibits employer actions that discriminate, by motivation or impact, against persons because of race. Title VII does not contain a definition of “race,” nor has the Commission adopted one. For the collection of federal data on race and ethnicity, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has provided the following five racial categories: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White; and one ethnicity category, Hispanic or Latino.(12) OMB has made clear that these categories are “social-political constructs . . . and should not be interpreted as being genetic, biological, or anthropological in nature.”(13)"

    Read it all at:

    And tell me what you think of U.S. Corporations using immigrants to make larger profits instead of American workers who can't work for wages that will not support them and their families.

  • Comment number 17.

    Yes, another politically correct broadcast from the BBC.

    Is it me or does nearly every report from the BBC seem to be having a poke at the US citizens and praising citizens who are of an Islamic background??

    What did I see here? I saw that Muslim Somalians have had to leave an opressive Islamic regime responsible for the deaths of 1000's and move not to another Islamic country but to a predominently Christian country. I see that still the women has decided to follow that same Islamic faith.

    I see segregation... "Somalians live here, people from Burma leave here." Is this 'communities coming together'?

    I see that 'Somalians help each other more'. Yes, that is why the are refugees!

  • Comment number 18.

    My mother's family was here since the 1600's and fought the British in the revolution... My father's side came here in 1870 from Norway and became ranchers (Cowboys). I believe this is an awesome story. My only concern with these newer immigrant is they seem to not be as willing to accept/combine their cultures as my respective families have. For instance, they're not joining the military as often as those who came before them have... Let me be clear, I have NO PROBLEM celebrating another holiday, the more the better. This isn't Xenophobia. This is a legit concern.

  • Comment number 19.

    Immigrants taking low-class, undesirable jobs is hardly new to this country. It happened to the Irish, and the Italians, and the Poles, and Chinese, and the Japanese, and... the list goes on and on. The Somalians will do as their predecessors did, and assimilate over two or three generations. It's a long honoured tradition here.


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