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Garden City: Meatpacking and Immigration to the High Plains -- Dr. Janet E. Benson



Dr. Janet E. Benson

Kansas State University
Dept. of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work
Manhattan, KS 66506-4003
(913) 532-4979

Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America:
Focus on the Midwestern States
July 11-13, 1996
Gateway Holiday Inn
Ames, IA 50014


Post-1965 immigration has changed the rural midwest in both subtle and dramatic ways. Since 1980, the local expansion of meatpacking has reinvigorated southwest Kansas communities, attracting newcomers from diverse origins. While not all packingplant workers are immigrants, the hard, unpleasant, and often dangerous line work of killing cattle and cutting meat has always been a predominantly immigrant occupation. Besides native-born Kansans and Anglos from other states, workers at the major packing plants include large numbers of refugees and immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Large-scale plants attract--and require--a larger workforce than small rural communities can provide. In 1992, for example, the Garden City school district recorded 768 new students from 32 states and 11 foreign countries. These included both the children of packers and the children of service and professional workers drawn to the community because of economic growth. During the 1990s, the immigrant flow has been overwhelmingly Mexican and Central American.

This paper discusses the implications of immigration for one southwest Kansas community, Garden City. Current trends in southwest Kansas result from a complex set of factors involving structural changes in the meatpacking industry, highly mobile capital, and ad hoc policy-making at the national level. Small towns must deal with the consequences of national policies and corporate decisions beyond their control. Local responses to rapid demographic change, however, affect community outcomes. A concerted, proactive response by local leaders can make a major difference both to newcomers' reception and to the effects of rapid demographic change on the host community.


Garden City is the seat for Finney County and a trade and service center for a five-state region in the southern High Plains. The town has been associated with the cattle industry since its founding in 1879. Successive capital investments in agriculture, feedyards, and meatpacking have attracted a steady flow of newcomers over the years. Center-pivot irrigation introduced in the 1960s allowed farmers to increase feedgrain production and develop a feeder cattle industry (Stull et al. 1990:1-3). Meanwhile a restructured beefpacking industry sought relocation in rural communities in right-to-work states. Packers adopted the strategy of locating plants close to a supply source, and cut labor costs by deskilling operations (Broadway 1995, Skaggs 1986) and seeking low-wage labor--often immigrants, minorities, and women--to supplement the available local labor force. During 1980 IBP, Inc. (formerly Iowa Beef Packers, Inc.), attracted by southwest Kansas feedlots, opened the world's largest packing plant in Holcomb, 10 miles from Garden City. In 1983 Val-Agri (now Monfort) modernized its Garden City plant. By 1990, these two plants were employing approximately 4000 workers. Between 1980 and 1985, Garden City acquired 6000 new residents and grew by 33%, making it the fastest-growing community in Kansas (Stull et al. 1990:1-3).

Garden City has now experienced fifteen years of meatpacking expansion. The town's population has increased from 18,256 in 1980 (Stull et al. 1990) to an estimated 27,000 at present (perhaps 36,000 for the county as a whole), while additional packing jobs have been added recently for a total of approximately 4500 workers (Halloran 1996). Growth has lead to the construction of new schools, stores, restaurants, motels, a mall, housing developments and mobile home courts. This growth has been fueled by heavy though not exclusive reliance on immigrant labor, first Southeast Asians (following a heavy refugee flow from Vietnam and Laos in the 1980s) and more recently Mexicans and Central Americans. The neighboring meatpacking communities of Dodge City and Liberal have undergone similar though less dramatic population growth, as well as smaller bedroom communities nearby which provide overflow housing.

School district enrollment figures provide the most reliable information with regard to demographic changes. In 1980, Garden City was overwhelmingly Anglo (82%), with a Hispanic minority of 16%. ("Hispanic" is the term used in school district counts. No distinction is made between recent immigrants and established Mexican Americans.) Blacks were one percent of the population, and American Indians and Asians were .5% each (Stull et al. 1990:2). By 1988, however, only 64% of students enrolled in the school district were Anglo; minority students totalled 34% (36% at the elementary level). Of these, 26% were Hispanic and a little over 6% Asian. During the 1990s, minority enrollments grew by a steady three or four percent per year. And by 1995, the minority became a majority, with enrollments reaching 51% (an astounding 56% at the elementary level). Of the minority students present during September 1995, 44% were Hispanic and 4.5% Asian.


Probably one of the most important points to make about the impact of meatpacking on Garden City is that it creates a situation of unusually high population mobility. Turnover at IBP and Monfort was estimated at 6-8% per month during the late 1980s, which amounted to over one-fifth of the town's population (not counting family members) being replaced each year (Stull et al. 1990:9). Many of the problems faced by community institutions and agencies, such as the schools, are at least partly caused by high turnover. It is difficult or impossible to provide continuity in education, for example, with a constantly changing population.

Population instability is closely related to the nature of work at the packing plants. Line workers allege that they are fired or "encouraged" to leave shortly before becoming eligible for health benefits or seniority. According to worker accounts, training is minimal; plants seem to have few incentives to maintain long-term workers and many reasons to dismiss them.

Plants seek to maximize worker productivity by tight labor control measures and increasing chain speeds. Unfortunately, high chain speeds also result in more injuries (Broadway 1995:37). Most workers, regardless of ethnic background, soon realize that packingplant work is a short-term proposition. However, assuming they avoid injury, it offers immigrants with limited English knowledge an opportunity to make relatively good wages.


Southeast Asians

The school district figures do not reveal the whole story concerning who comes and why, nor reasons for shifts in ethnic group proportions. Different refugee or immigrant groups enter the country and seek packinghouse work, or are targeted by the plants, at different times. Southeast Asians (mainly Vietnamese and Lao) were the first major category of nontraditional newcomers to enter Garden City. A few families, part of the "first wave" to leave Vietnam, were sponsored by Garden City Catholics shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Many more Vietnamese, "second wave" refugees, arrived in the United States--and Garden City--during the height of the Southeast Asian refugee flow in the 1980s. They were more apt to be Buddhist than the first wave and often less educated, coming from farming and fishing backgrounds. Perhaps half of these were secondary migrants from Wichita, 215 miles east of Garden City, while the rest came from other states where their initial sponsors had been located. A recession in the early 1980s led to layoffs for Southeast Asians working in Wichita's aircraft industry and meatpacking plants (Stull et al. 1990:8). Once individuals learned that jobs were available in Garden City, secondary migration began. Lao, whose initial refugee flow into the United States lagged that of the Vietnamese, soon followed.

Pioneering Vietnamese and Lao refugees endured substandard living conditions, many people sometimes sharing a rented house in shifts (Benson 1993). Family households often took in single male boarders, or males shared a house or apartment. Southeast Asians almost never moved to Garden City (or elsewhere) without first identifying a friend, relative, or acquaintance who could provide temporary housing or social support of some kind. Family economic strategies usually emphasized obtaining employment for women, allowing households to build up savings for business investment, purchase of a fishing boat on the Gulf, or further education (Benson 1990, 1993, 1994).

By the late 1980s, having reached their capital accumulation goals and tiring of the hard, dangerous work, many Vietnamese were moving out of Garden City and meatpacking. The flow of new Southeast Asian refugees had slowed to a trickle. At the same time, the population of Mexican immigrants was increasing daily. Mexicans often purchased mobile homes from Vietnamese owners. Mobile home parks which were originally dominated by Southeast Asians became almost totally Latino in a matter of months.

To add to the complexity of these movements, as relatively "old-timer" Vietnamese and Lao families left, several groups of Lao refugees were brought in from California as part of a planned secondary resettlement movement funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and organized by the local Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association (MAA). The goal was to move people out of the welfare system into a state of economic self-sufficiency based on meatpacking employment. Local agencies such as the Office of Social and Rehabilitation Services, the Adult Learning Center, and the MAA have in effect helped recruit for IBP and Monfort, steering newcomers toward this source of employment in order to foster self-sufficiency (one of the main concerns of the government's refugee resettlement policy).


The demographic shift to Mexican and Central American immigrants is attributable to a number of factors, including deliberate recruitment by plant managers. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) has had important consequences for Garden City. As others have observed, IRCA did not halt illegal immigration. Undocumented newcomers (or those with false documents) continued to arrive. Also, interviews carried out in Garden City, Dodge City, and Liberal during 1990-91 (Benson 1993) indicated that men who had become legalized during the amnesty program were bringing their families to Kansas for the first time. Adult learning centers conducted a booming business as Spanish-speaking immigrants applied for amnesty.

According to Chavez (1988), Latino immigrants are more likely to settle permanently in the United States once families are here. However, given the nature of meatpacking employment, it is not clear that these families will stay in Garden City more than a few months or years. Many of the wives have not been legalized and therefore cannot work at the packing plants, making the family's economic situation precarious. The presence of relatively more families in proportion to single males has important implications for Garden City in terms of providing services.



In 1980-81, Garden City's most urgent need was for housing. Newcomers lived wherever they could find space, in old partitioned houses downtown, small mobile home courts in the city or county, or in apartment houses. Some slept in cars and campers in city parks. Affordable rental housing was a major issue, not only for IBP, ready to start its second shift, but for two other employers, Sunflower Electric and St. Catherine's Hospital. High interest rates and a lagging agricultural economy had slowed building. IBP and the other large employers wanted a new mobile home development in Garden City (Benson 1993:1966).

The city commission at first resisted the idea of a large mobile home park. Acting independently of the city, IBP representatives purchased county land and pushed through a development. The developer then requested city zoning and annexation. City commissioners initially rejected the proposal, fearing high service costs, but finally capitulated in order to exercise some control over development. (The county had no zoning standards or means of enforcing health and safety regulations.) As soon as the site could be prepared, IBP moved in rental units and started its second shift. During May 1988 the 120-acre park contained 532 lots, 465 of which were occupied by mobile homes (Benson 1990:366-67). Since then, empty lots have been filled and more sites are currently being developed as the court expands. The owner provides trailers for programs run by Head Start and the Adult Learning Center. He claims to house approximately 2900 people today--more than the population of many small Kansas towns! While not the most attractive environment, and suffering chronic security problems (mostly due to theft and distance from fire stations), neither is this site a rural slum. Grass and a few trees are surviving, while new owners have painted their houses in the bright colors popular in Latin American countries.

Many newcomers choose mobile homes as a housing option because they can be bought second-hand for a few thousand dollars and readily sold when the owners move on. Workers economize on rental expenses and have more freedom in living arrangements if they own their own homes. The city dislikes annexing mobile home parks because services must be provided immediately, while taxes are always in arrears. Mobile home owners of course pay taxes through park owners as well as individual property taxes on their homes. However, because they cannot begin to provide the same revenue base as middle- or upper-income owners of single-family homes, they are stigmatized by established residents as "transient" and "not paying taxes". The rapid growth of mobile home concentrations in Finney County, outside Garden City's borders, has basically been ignored by the city, which provides few or no services.

During the 1990s Garden City was facing another severe housing shortage as its population increased and pressure for single-family dwellings built up. Some refugee and immigrant families who had arrived in the 1980s were beginning to buy their own homes, but not enough affordable houses were available. When interest rates dropped, the affluent began to build new homes outside town, freeing up older housing for others. Over time, then, at least some newcomers have moved into middle-class status. Immigrant renters still complain that rental costs are too high ($300-$400 per month) in proportion to their salaries, and many are forced to live in substandard housing (cf. Benson 1993).

Medical Care

Another set of issues surrounds increased community needs for medical care. Injuries are common in the meatpacking industry, especially for line workers (cf. Broadway 1995). A Garden City Community Health Assessment conducted in 1995 found "unintended injuries" to be the third leading cause of death in Finney County. Most minorities received health care in the process of making workers' compensation claims; very few agencies dealt with the problem of injuries. The report also noted that OSHA had little presence in the county (The Docking Institute 1995).

While plants do provide first aid and send injured employees to local doctors, workers assert that treatment is sometimes inadequate. They also state that they conceal injuries out of fear of being fired. The consequence of a high injury rate is that disabled individuals drop out of the workforce, seeking other jobs (if they can hold them) or drawing welfare benefits of some kind. Some workers will stay in Garden City at least temporarily, while others move. When asked what happened to immigrants when they became disabled, a local judge stated that "They go somewhere else to live and their families take care of them." Most established Garden City residents do not consider this a problem because immigrant workers are socially "invisible."

Medical care for women and children has also been a major issue. Packinghouse workers do not receive health insurance for four to six months after starting work, depending on the plant, and even individuals with coverage may not be able to afford the co-payments. Pregnancy, a "pre-existing condition," is underreported by women workers who consequently receive little or no prenatal care. During 1987, Finney County had the second highest birth rate in Kansas while 25% of the women giving birth in St. Catherine Hospital had no prenatal care. Doctors are reluctant to serve high-risk women (those without medical coverage), but lack of prenatal care increases risk to mother and child at delivery (Stull et al. 1990:122). There have also been problems with active cases of tuberculosis and children failing to receive immunizations.

To fill these unmet needs, the United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries (UMAM) opened a clinic in November 1987. The clinic averaged about 500 visits per month (65 for prenatal care), primarily women and children, in the late 1980s. Current emphasis is on primary care including tuberculosis testing, immunizations, migrant health visits, dental and optometric care, and HIV/AIDS. Two new programs introduced in 1995 were a diabetes outreach program and a breast and cervical cancer prevention project. All four UMAM sites in southwest Kansas taken together (of which Garden City is by far the largest) totalled 15,350 primary care visits between January and November 1995 (Schwab 1995). UMAM charges a nominal fee and takes only patients who do not have a regular physician because of their inability to pay.

With the support of the Methodist Church and various granting agencies, UMAM has expanded its services to fill a gap in community needs. Ideally, the Finney County Health Department should have played this role. The health department, however, has led a troubled existence in recent years due to conflict between county commissioners and health department administrators over public health funding. According to a recent Garden City Community Health Assessment (1995), the community lacks adequate family planning resources and public education programs for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). No dental care is available for the indigent. The county, like the local doctors, has been unwilling or unable to deal with the expanding health needs of Garden City's population.


In addition to health care, newcomers need education for their children and themselves. Garden City's school age enrollments rapidly increased during the 1980s (by 1600 students or 37% between 1980-1986). The community met this challenge by passing three different school bond elections to build three new elementary schools. While the subsequent school bond election failed, Garden City was recently successful in funding two new fifth and sixth grade centers, currently under construction.

A growing immigrant population has increased student needs for bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. While Garden City had a bilingual program in place before IBP's construction, locating and retaining Vietnamese-, Lao-, and Spanish-speaking staff to assist with school programs has proved to be an intractable problem. The school district depends heavily on paraprofessionals for translation and interpretation services, but cannot compete with packingplant wages or compensate for Garden City's isolated location. Recent immigrants find it difficult or impossible to pass state education exams required for teachers. Consequently turnover among the ESL/Bilingual staff is high and the program struggles to find and keep qualified instructors.

The school district has been most successful with elementary school children. Non-English-speaking immigrant children who enter the American school system at an early age usually learn English rapidly. Dealing with immigrant teenagers, whose speech habits are largely set and whose parents, busy at the packing houses, may not be available to supervise them, has been a more difficult issue. Isolated in ESL/bilingual classes, these students often do not gain enough English skills or social confidance to make a successful transition to high school. Schools consequently report problems with truancy, teen-age pregnancy, drop-outs, and the development of gangs.


Garden City has reacted relatively well to the dramatic population changes of the last fifteen years. When IBP proposed building its plant, it warned community officials that additional workers would be needed. Rumors were plentiful when large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees arrived in the 1980s ("the government gives them a car when they get off the plane"). However, a local ministerial alliance quickly took charge of public education, utilizing churches, schools, and news media to explain who the newcomers were and what they were doing in Garden City. Established residents value hard work and self-sufficiency; once they understood that the newcomers were present to work at jobs most local people did not want, fears of economic competition decreased. While packingplant workers (of whatever ethnicity) are still stigmatized due to their perceived transiency and low-status occupation, the newcomers are at least tolerated by most established residents thanks to the foresight of local leaders. Whether the newcomers have been integrated into the community is another question.


Any sharp-eyed visitor to Garden City will note features which distinguish it from other Kansas communities. The newest Dillon's store (a Kansas chain) has "enter" and "exit" signs printed on its doors in both English and Spanish, while the produce section boasts a colorful display of chiles. The post office and school district administration headquarters exhibit signs in three languages: English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. At several elementary schools, parents are likely to see Mexican and Lao or Vietnamese dances on the same school program and to choose between hot dogs, enchiladas, and egg rolls for dinner. Fulton Street, which runs past the railroad tracks and local grain elevator, is a constantly changing locale for Southeast Asian and Latino stores and restaurants. The dragon dancers, the highlight of local Vietnamese New Year celebrations, appear at schools and conferences and have become a familiar part of Garden City culture. A local newspaper, the Garden City Telegram, produces a Spanish-language version, La Semana.

These changes can be viewed either as positive aspects of immigration, for those who see the United States as increasingly part of a world society, or as threatening developments to those who feel that the survival of American culture is at stake. Integration can be viewed from more than one perspective. An assimilationist view (held by most established Garden City residents) assumes that newcomers must adapt to American culture, e.g. by learning English. From another point of view, we can ask how Garden City has changed, both for better and for worse, and how it is linked to larger economic and cultural systems.

The extent to which newcomers can or will be integrated into Garden City society depends largely on the economy, impending changes in immigration law, and local Anglo attitudes toward newcomers. Packingplant work encourages high mobility, disrupts education for children, and discourages English learning by adults. It also stigmatizes workers and their children because of its low status. Workers circulate between meatpacking communities throughout the midwest as they are fired, injured, laid off, or seek reunion with relatives. Until recently, Mexican immigrants have had the option of returning home while Southeast Asian refugees have not. Once children have joined parents in the United States, pressures to acculturate will probably increase.

The longer Mexican families stay in the United States, the more likely that they will speak English and become citizens.


To summarize this discussion, major immigration-related issues in Garden City include housing, medical care, and education. Farmers and packers want cheap labor, the Chamber of Commerce promotes economic development, and businesspeople welcome more customers. Most established residents do not see newcomers as competitors for jobs. With some local resistence, the community has funded five new schools since 1980. At the same time, the town's middle-class population is reluctant or unable to provide some services needed by new residents. Attempts to require minimal health and safety standards in rental housing have met bitter opposition from landlords, while some housing remains substandard. Immigrants continue to receive inadequate medical care. The school district has tried to fulfill its federal mandate to educate all children regardless of origins, but is struggling with its bilingual/ESL program. The basic questions remain: Who is responsible for providing public services to low-income people? How will these costs be paid? Does the existence of a "second-class" population in Garden City pose dangers to the health and well-being of the community as a whole? This is a key issue during a period when federal funding for social services is drying up and local government will be expected to do more. Traditionally, cities have not provided social services (Halloran 1996). Whether the city and county together can be persuaded to do more in the future remains an open question.

Finally there is the issue of legal status. Immigration laws and policies devised at the national level impact local situations in different ways. Stepped-up deportation of undocumented immigrants, which the INS has been attempting in Garden City, disrupts plant operations and interferes with schooling. It threatens those families in which men have been legalized but women and children are not. It is not clear whether pending legal changes will result in the deportation of those family members who have already applied for, but have not yet received, legal status. Insecurity about current legislation has galvanized many members of Garden City's immigrant Latino community to apply for citizenship if they are eligible. Pressure from the Latino community on city government will increase in the future (the mayor and a city commissioner are currently established Mexican Americans).

What, then, are the positive and negative effects of immigration? What would happen to Garden City, and southwest Kansas in general, in the unlikely event that all new immigration stopped tomorrow? Immigration is not responsible for all the problems of growth, although it contributes to them. Rather, growth--in packingplant jobs, in farming and feedlot operations--has led to labor demands which cannot be met locally. As long as work opportunities exist, immigrant workers will come. It would be better to openly recognize these labor needs and regulate immigrants through a guest-worker system than for the government to arbitrarily raid employers with the rationale of "saving jobs for Americans." Communities using significant numbers of immigrant laborers need to plan for housing, medical services, and educational needs. While decreased turnover in meatpacking would greatly increase community stability, this seems unlikely to occur. Whatever the outcome regarding immigration reform, Garden City will probably continue to be, as it has been for the last 120 years, a locus of constant change and a stopping-point for newcomers on the High Plains.


This paper is based on team research funded by the Ford Foundation Changing Relations Project during 1988-1990 (Stull et al. 1990). Funding by the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station (Contribution No. 97-456-A) has allowed further research on immigration into southwest Kansas since completion of the Ford Project. The cooperation of USD 457, the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association, and the staff of the Garden City Community College is gratefully acknowledged.


Benson, Janet

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