Texas Town Embraces New Refugee Residents | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Texas Town Embraces New Refugee Residents

Play associated audio

Though some states have cracked down hard on illegal immigration, one small Texas town has rolled out the welcome mat for hundreds of foreigners and wouldn't mind seeing more move in.

It started about a year ago when a chicken processing plant in Nacogdoches, Texas, announced it would hire a couple hundred new workers, all of them refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"The initial reaction, it wasn't as good as it should have been," says Nacogdoches Mayor Roger Van Horn.

Van Horn recalls a tense meeting when Pilgrim's Pride said Southeast Asian refugees would debone the chicken by hand. About 33,000 people live in Nacogdoches, and the unemployment rate is low, so it's hard to find people to do this kind of work.

"Immigration is a very touchy issue in this part of the country, being so close to the border. And why are our people unemployed, and you're bringing other people in to take the jobs?" he says.

These refugees are in the U.S. legally, and what Pilgrim's Pride did in hiring them was above board, too. Van Horn says you can't pretend the Burmese aren't here. Besides, they're taxpayers now.

Pilgrim's Pride wouldn't comment, but said in an email that it was impressed by the town's support. The school district planned a welcome center. A south Texas pediatrician from Myanmar moved his practice to Nacogdoches. The Daily Sentinel, the local newspaper, wrote dozens of articles addressing customs, food and life in refugee camps. Publisher Rayanne Schmid says the paper was just trying to help people understand their new neighbors.

"We felt like the more we could explain to our community, the less frightened they would seem. And now, you see them in town, and they're just part of our community now," Schmid says.

Ker Paw Nah, 27, supervises 72 workers at Pilgrim's Pride. He moved from Houston to take the job. Other Burmese have relocated from California and Oregon. Nah wears a black Adidas jacket over his traditional woven top. He says when he needed a new home to rent members of his church helped him at every turn.

"Everybody need their freedom. Everybody need their independence. I need a safe place to live and a better life. That's my dream," he says.

At Nacogdoches High School, 14 students are from Myanmar. And they know their future depends on learning English.

ESL instructor Katherine Whitbeck says the students are assertive about learning, and they make the honor roll. Their education could open up job possibilities beyond the chicken plant.

Upholstery shop owner Linda Greer wants to hire some refugees to alleviate her furniture order backlog. She says Nacogdoches is so receptive because they came from an oppressed country.

"You don't mind helping somebody that's good and kind and wants to work. It's a small town, and I think people in a small town have a little more tolerance," Greer says.

For the Nah family, any time they've asked for help, local residents have stepped up. Nah's dream is for his baby boy to become governor of Myanmar and bring peace to the country. Meanwhile, he has found peace in a town that adopted him far from his troubled homeland.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

The Dread Factor: Why Ebola And 'Contagion' Scare Us So Much

Even just the word Ebola is kind of terrifying. Why? Hollywood has a lot to do with it. But Ebola outbreaks also have all the ingredients for what one psychologist calls the "dread factor."
NPR

Author And His Daughter Cook Around The World And You Can Too

Kelly McEvers talks to food writer Mark Kurlansky and his daughter Talia about their cookbook International Night, based on their tradition of cooking a meal every week from a different country.
NPR

Outside Group Mirrors Successful Strategies Of Political Parties

A U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs in Iowa, and the GOP has opened 11 field offices statewide. But there's also a new team working the state, the Virginia-based group Americans for Prosperity.
NPR

Coming Soon To A Pole Near You: A Bike That Locks Itself

Cyclists may soon have a convenient way to discourage bike thieves, thanks to new designs that use parts of the bikes themselves as locks.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.