Texas Town Embraces New Refugee Residents

Jan 24, 2012
Originally published on January 24, 2012 9:06 pm

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.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, the story of a community in Texas that is actively seeking the help of immigrants. From Red River Radio, Kate Archer Kent reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

KATE ARCHER KENT, BYLINE: The bells from a Methodist Church proclaim 5 o'clock in downtown Nacogdoches, Texas. No bumper-to-bumper traffic on these brick streets. Historical marker signs dot the town that holds a claim to being the oldest in Texas. People from Nac - as they say here - are proud of their heritage and the latest development. It's been nearly a year since the chicken processing plant 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.

The town's mayor, Roger 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.

MAYOR ROGER VAN HORN: Immigration is a very touchy issue in this part of the country, you know, being so close to the border. And why are our people unemployed, and you're bringing other people in to take the jobs?

KENT: These refugees are in the U.S. legally, and what Pilgrim's Pride did in hiring them was aboveboard 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 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.

RAYANNE SCHMID: We felt like the more we could explain to our community, the less frightened they would seem, and the less - and now that you see them in town and that they're just part of our community now.

KENT: Twenty-seven-year-old Ker Paw Nah 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 this church helped him at every turn.

KER PAW NAH: Everybody need their freedom. Everybody need their independence. I need a safe place to live, and I need a better life. That's my dream.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENT: At Nacogdoches High School, 14 students are from Myanmar, and they know their future depends on learning English. On a recent day, several get called to the nurse for vaccinations. ESL instructor Katherine Whitbeck sees a teachable moment.

KATHERINE WHITBECK: Immunizations.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Immunizations.

WHITBECK: Immunizations.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Immunizations.

WHITBECK: Shots.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Shots.

WHITBECK: OK.

KENT: 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.

LINDA GREER: 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.

KENT: 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's found peace in a town that adopted him far from his troubled homeland. For NPR News, I'm Kate Archer Kent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.