Part 3: Fear and nostalgia in a changing community
From her home in Austin, Linnea Burtch has embarked on a crusade against illegal immigration. In her living room, she keeps a briefcase full of newspaper clippings and fliers that advocate for strict enforcement measures.
"I think people want what's right to be right," Burtch said. "They want the illegals out of here."
Race and immigration haven't always been priorities for Burtch, a 60-year-old grandmother. An active member of her church, she grew up in Austin and after a 23-year nursing career returned to her hometown in the early 1990s.
A few years later, while living in a mobile home park, she started to realize many of her neighbors were Latino.
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"I had no idea anything about illegal or legal," she said. "I was so busy signing all these people up for our resident association, and getting involved and none of the Hispanics wanted to join. They were really shy about really joining even our resident association."
When she realized some of the mobile homes had multiple Latino families living in them -- violating association rules -- she was angry.
"One family, they were 18 in a two-bedroom home out there," Burtch said. "There were people that were living in sheds out there. And I was just horrified. I couldn't hardly believe that this was going on."
Austin is among hundreds of rural towns around the country where immigrant workers seeking the promise of a better life have altered the community. Latinos now make up nearly a quarter of the city's population.
That bothers some longtime Austin residents, who long for the old Austin. Some blame a contentious strike at the Hormel meatpacking plant 25 years ago this month for ushering in sweeping demographic changes. Old-timers struggle to understand the new, mostly Mexican workforce.
Burtch moved her double-wide unit out of the mobile home community and onto a residential street in Austin. She got involved with the Minnesota Coalition for Immigration Reform, a small but vocal anti-immigration group based in Albert Lea. She spends much of her time organizing the group's Austin chapter and advocating for strict immigration control.
She wants to hold employers, including Hormel and Quality Pork Processors, accountable for the role they play in attracting immigrant labor.
"They would self-deport if they could not be hired by Hormel, QPP, Austin Packaging Company -- anybody who hires illegals," Burtch said.
"I'll tell you what, if Hormel were fined $1,000, $10,000 every time one of these illegals was found there, they wouldn't have them there very long."
Burtch's views are not unusual in Austin, a city of about 23,000 residents.
DEALING WITH UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS
From 1990 to 2000, the number of Latinos in Austin skyrocketed from about 250 to more than 1,600. Today, as many as a quarter of the city's residents may be Latino -- primarily from Mexico and Guatemala -- and police officials say the use of false documents is on the rise.
In Austin, the number of forgery cases, often for using false identification, nearly doubled in the last decade, from 86 in 2000 to 141 in 2009.
Among those authorities charged with using forged documents was Gilberto Briones.
Briones, 36 moved to southern Minnesota from Omaha, Nebraska with his wife Maria in 2002. He worked at QPP for six years, volunteered as a union steward and became a go-to person for rank-and-file Latino workers -- all the while working under the name of Rene Ramos.
In 2008, Briones said, the company fired him for identity theft.
"I was trying to help the employees and one day, they just called me," Briones said. "I thought it was something simple, that I had to help another person, but that day was for me. And I couldn't do nothing."
Officials with Hormel and QPP declined to comment for this story.
Mower County Sheriff officials estimate about half the jail population is in the United States illegally. A decade ago, immigrants without proper documents made up only 10 percent of the Austin jail population.
When federal agents arrested Briones last December, they also picked up his brother-in-law, sister-in-law and her husband. Briones posted $10,000 bail with the help of friends. The others were deported.
An immigration judge will ultimately decide if Briones should be deported. His next immigration court hearing is scheduled for next spring. His wife Maria doesn't know what she and her three U.S.-born children will do if he's deported.
"Austin is a peaceful town, very inviting for the kids and for us," she said. "They give us work here. But now, we're living in fear of what'll happen if the police stop us. All we do is think about what could happen to us and to our family."
The rapid influx of immigrant workers like Briones has made illegal immigration a hot topic in Austin. Stories in the local newspapers regularly identify whether a person is in the country illegally. Immigrant advocates and those opposed to illegal immigration occasionally confront each other at rallies.
Social service agencies and advocacy groups in Austin have worked painstakingly to embrace the new ethnic and racial minorities.
But for some, the wave of new arrivals has been abrupt and uncomfortable. And only a few speak openly about it.
At a recent meeting of the Minnesota Coalition for Immigration Reform coalition in Austin, the guest speaker was Ron Branstner, a volunteer for the Minuteman Project in California. The private organization monitors the flow of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Branstner comes to Minnesota a few times a year to visit his parents.
Coalition members say the issue for them is the need to enforce laws they say are already in place. They question how so many immigrants can land jobs at Austin's major companies.
"The illegals, they are just the symptom," Branstner said. "They are not the issue. They are not what's underneath this whole thing."
Branstner encourages coalition members to speak up against the changes in Austin. But he admits the anger toward immigrants is sometimes misdirected. For the most part, he said, meatpacking workers are victims of American capitalism and corporate greed.
"They are being used," Branstner tells his audience about immigrant workers "just like you're being used. The only thing is we look at them because they are the symptom and we want to put a band-aid on it."
But what Branstner sees as a symptom, others see as the city's the saving grace.
"At the turn of the century, it was projected that Austin would lose population," said former mayor Bonnie Rietz. A decade ago, she and other city officials created an agency designed to offer support to the city's newest residents.
The Welcome Center, in the heart of Austin, went up in 2000. It's a yellow brick building with a small sign -- some say so it won't attract a lot of attention. It's the place immigrants - legal and illegal- come to get information about work, medical services and community events.
The people who pushed for the Welcome Center support racial tolerance and cultural understanding. They say in many ways, Austin has a responsibility to help immigrants -- because they've helped save the city.
However, every now and then, the building is the target of anti-immigrant picketing and rallies. Folks who work here occasionally receive fliers saying the Welcome Center is not welcome in Austin.
"Change to some people in is exciting and they look forward to it and they want it," Rietz said. "And change to others, to some, is just like 'no, we like our community the way it is. We want no changes. We don't want anyone coming in and changing our community.' "
Rietz believes that to some extent, age education, and personal experience play a role in how Austin residents react to their Mexican neighbors.
Others, like retired school principal Norm Hecimovich, believe class distinctions often drive anti-immigrant feelings. Some of the most palpable fear comes from those who are afraid of losing something to the newcomers, like a job.
White-collar, professional workers in Austin seem to be the most accepting of the city's immigrant residents.
On a recent Saturday, Hecimovich strolled past polished vintage cars at the annual VFW car show. The crowd is mostly middle-aged and white.
Before he retired, Hecimovich was a school principal in Austin. He said a deep-rooted nostalgia for pre-strike Austin has made it difficult for adult immigrants to find acceptance.
"It's partially us and it's partially them because many times they want to stay by themselves and more and more comfortable, maybe," Hecimovich said.
There are strong anti-immigrant sentiments in the community, particularly among blue-collar workers, Hecimovich said. Many of those who are outspoken about immigration are former Hormel workers who long for the days before the strike.
"People blame the minority groups, but they're the only ones left," he said of the immigrants' presence in the plants.
If there's one place the future of Austin is clear it's at the Woodson Kindergarten Center. Mayor Tom Stiehm stopped by this spring, when nearly 375 students were in class.
Stiehm said the school is a snapshot of the future -- and a reminder that Austin will probably never look the way it did before the Hormel strike.
"People get so comfortable. They look back and they say, 'the 70s. God the 70s were so great. Now what's different from the 70s?' and they see all the people of different colors and stuff, and they go 'Geez, well that's different,' " he said. "If that wasn't here, maybe we wouldn't have these issues."
As a cluster of children heads toward the playground for recess, it's clear that in this quintessential backdrop of rural Minnesota, nearly half of the students are minority -- many the children of immigrants. This year's kindergarten class was 47 percent minority.
"If you look 10, 15, 20 years down the road, Austin is going to have a large immigrant population --a large Hispanic population because they won't be immigrants, they'll be citizens and they'll be living here," Stiehm said. "And at that point, what are you going to look back on?"
Stiehm said change has come to Austin very fast and that's been hard for this small town. The city is at a crossroads and residents will have to decide whether to leave a legacy of hatred or acceptance -- or perhaps an uneasy middle-ground.
In the end, Stiehm believes people simply need more time to get to know each other.