The Changing Face of Owensboro:
Immigration trends challenge us
Language instruction, socialization, humanitarian assistance, and cultural exchanges are among the steps needed to embrace diversity in our community
Only about 1,000 people in Daviess County are foreign born, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, which provides the latest figures available. That’s about one percent of the total population and the majority of those immigrants moved here from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Still, that number – 915 to be exact -- has almost tripled since 1990, when the census identified only 352 foreign-born people who settled here. But these official figures fail to include an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 undocumented immigrants, primarily from Latin America, who reside in Daviess County, according to local service agencies. Nor do they reflect the growth in Owensboro’s immigrant population since 2000. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the Hispanic population in the United States will increase by 34 percent between 2000 and 2010, making it likely that Daviess County likewise will continue to see an increase. Because of this projected growth, community leaders are exploring how to better support Daviess County’s immigrant families and build on the benefits that can accrue from a more diverse population. Here’s a look these efforts.
Who is immigrating to Owensboro?
U.S. immigration law allows for approximately 1 million people to enter the country each year. Spouses, minor children and parents of U.S. citizens can enter in unlimited numbers, though they are typically subject to a five-year wait, and make up the majority of new documented immigrants. For those who do not have immediate family members who are U.S. citizens, the process is more onerous. This group is typically subject to a cap of 26,000 people per country. That means about a 10-year wait to legally enter the U.S. Thus some immigrants come to the country without permission. Documented immigrants tend to be well-educated and come to this country with resources. These professionals easily integrate into the community as business owners, doctors and educators. Undocumented immigrants are more likely to come to the U.S. under dangerous circumstances to escape economic conditions and abusive family situations. Ultimately they may become part of a hybrid group – undocumented immigrants who have given birth to children in the U.S. By virtue of being born here, the children are U.S. citizens.
Jorge’s story is typical of the undocumented immigrant who settles in Owensboro. He came to the U.S. from Chiapas, Mexico in 2003 at age 17 with his brother and an uncle. They crossed the border because a factory, recently built in their village, improved the standard of living for a few residents but left the rest of the population to cope with rising costs. One of Jorge’s biggest difficulties has been learning the language. He has no interest in continuing his education because he received less than three years of formal education in Chiapas. He believes he could never keep up with his peers locally. Instead, when Jorge entered the U.S., he purchased papers that say he is 22 years old. He works as a laborer for a landscaping company at wages lower than many people would accept to meet his financial obligations, which include sending money to his family in Chiapas. Given the nature of his job, the weather often keeps Jorge from working. But because of his legal status, he cannot take advantage of the government programs that are available to legal residents who are out of work. This is despite the fact that he pays federal, state and local income taxes; pays into the Social Security and Medicare systems; and pays sales tax every time he makes a purchase.
Aid from local agency
This is one of many personal stories related by Sister Larraine Lauter, executive director of MISAS (Migrant/Immigrant Shelter and Support), a local agency that provides services for Owensboro’s growing Hispanic population. Lauter said many immigrants are unaware of the challenges they will face once they arrive. Currently MISAS meets many of the basic needs of the new Hispanic residents of Owensboro. It provides instruction in English and refers clients to appropriate agencies for interpreting, medical and other services. But according to Lauter, the biggest challenge faced by the new Hispanic population, whether documented or undocumented, is not so easily addressed -- the lack of acceptance by the community. She said that, as a whole, this population has the values and work ethic that should be a welcome addition to any locale. Family is of the utmost importance. Immigrant couples have a much lower rate of divorce than Americans and feel an obligation to support the family members who remain in their prior home countries by regularly sending a portion of their incomes to them. Additionally, because the majority of new immigrants are willing to work for very low wages, at jobs that most would not consider, they keep costs down for everyone.
Community dialogue generates ideas
To address the issues faced by the current and future populations of immigrants, Community Conversations, in partnership with the Owensboro Human Relations Commission, organized a series of study circles last fall. Local residents from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds gathered to discuss immigration and develop ideas about how this community can address the issue. Over the course of 10 weeks, the study circles developed many ideas. For example, they emphasized increased opportunities for residents to learn how to speak English and Spanish. They encouraged residents to volunteer and actively socialize with new immigrants. The study circles also suggested that some of Daviess County’s pre-existing programs, such as Owensboro Sister Cities, could be further developed to create an appreciation for cultural diversity. Thus far, there has been no follow-up the conversations. But Bill Dixon, executive director of the Owensboro Human Relations Commission, said he hopes that he and Darren Peach, the new director of Community Conversations, can work together to establish action committees in the near future.
Bill West, a professor at the Owensboro Community and Technical College and executive director of Sister Cities, Inc., also wants this community to appreciate cultural diversity – perhaps through an international center. He has enlisted the support of Daviess County Judge-Executive Reid Haire, who said an international center may help promote tourism, economic development and the needs of our increasingly diverse population. West is also seeking the support of other local officials, universities, colleges and agencies. He envisions a center that would address the needs of all new immigrants, not by duplicating services already offered by local agencies, but by working with the agencies to provide additional services. Most important, West believes an international center could educate the community about the cultures of the people who are making their homes in Owensboro because, in his words, “Many of us do not know where the rest of the world is.”
The ways in which community institutions address a changing population is a continuing saga. The Advocate will explore these issues in future editions. Stories will cover, among other topics, how the public schools must educate students for whom English is a second language.