Fatal bus crash spurs immigration debate

Downtown Willmar
Downtown Willmar, Minn.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

In the central Minnesota town of Willmar, a community that has struggled with the issue of immigration in recent years, the fatal bus crash has been the focus of much conversation.

It's late afternoon at the American Legion bar in Willmar. About a dozen people, mostly retirees, are gathered in small groups over drinks.

Willmar American Legion
At the Willmar American Legion post, patrons are talking about the recent school bus crash, where a woman in the country illegally is charged in the fatal accident. Some here say the state should crack down on illegal immigrants.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Most of the conversation focuses on last Tuesday's fatal bus crash that killed four children, 50 miles down the road near Cottonwood.

Marlene, who looks grandmotherly with reading glasses perched atop a head of gray hair, expressed the frustration of many people.

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"There's a lot of people angry over this," said Marlene.

For her, news that the woman involved in the crash is not a legal U.S. resident makes the situation even worse.

"It just made me sick when I think of the grief that those families went through, because this woman was in the country and shouldn't have been," said Marlene.

News coverage of the accident has garnered plenty of similar comments on the Willmar newspaper's Web site.


The West Central Tribune's editor, Kelly Boldan, has watched discussion of the story, and the immigration status of the woman involved, degrade into on-screen shouting matches over issues of race and illegal immigration.

"There is a portion of the readers that take it immediately to lay blame on the entire class of immigrants. Some can separate the actions from this individual from the group, others cannot," said Boldan.

To be fair, Boldan said, other readers have balanced the conversation, saying the woman's immigration status shouldn't be part of the discussion of the bus crash.

But in Willmar, immigration tends to be the focus of a lot of conversation.

In less than 20 years, the town has gone from a mostly white community to one with a sizable Latino population. The 2000 census put the number of Latinos at 15 percent of Willmar's 18,000 people.

The increase has been driven by a demand for labor at the local Jenni-O turkey processing plant. The change is obvious in the city's bustling downtown. From the vantage point of one street corner, you can see a Hispanic-owned grocery store, a restaurant and two Mexican bakeries.

"Some can separate the actions from this individual from the group, others cannot."

Many in Willmar say that proves the city is more than welcoming to new immigrants. So much so that leaders in the Latino community wonder why some would use the fatal bus crash to raise the topic of illegal immigration.

Edel Fernandez, director of Multicultural Affairs at Willmar's Ridgewater College, hasn't heard from anyone in the Latino community or the Anglo community worried about a backlash against immigrants because of the crash.

"Because of the political world we live in, this has become more of an issue, and actually people pay more attention to this," said Fernandez. "It is unfortunate that we have lost some lives, and that should be the main issue. Whether the person that did it is from here, from Mars or from wherever."

Neither has Maria Diaz. Diaz works with Latino residents in Willmar as part of the Races project, an effort to develop community leaders within the Hispanic population.

Maria Diaz
Maria Diaz works with Latino residents in Willmar as part of the Races project, an effort to develop community leaders within the Hispanic population.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"The accident itself is the topic. How sad for the driver, and for the parents of the kids and for the whole community," said Diaz.

So far, Diaz hasn't heard suggestions the crash might be used to spur a crackdown on undocumented workers in the Willmar area. "Let's hope nobody will take this as an advantage to use it against anybody. But I think if it's going to happen, we'll hear, and you'll come and we'll talk," Diaz said.

But indications are that the Cottonwood crash will be used to raise the issue of illegal immigration during this legislative session.

State Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, who is assistant House minority leader, sees that as more than appropriate.

"Yes, it has increased the awareness, and rightfully so. We need to get a better handle on all this, and we need to start taking action now," said Gimse.

Gimse supports legislation favored by Gov. Tim Pawlenty that would make using false documents to get a job in Minnesota a felony.

As the debate over illegal immigration seems certain to heat up at the Capitol, it will continue in places such as Willmar, where immigrants are immersed in the community.