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Column

There’s reason for hope in national immigration debate

Once-white Beardstown a melding of cultures

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

BEARDSTOWN — Sometimes you find hope in unexpected places.

For me, it was a trip to Walmart in this sleepy western Illinois town.

Strolling through the store aisles, I saw immigrants from Africa and Latin America chatting in French and Spanish among folks who have worked the land in Schuyler and Cass counties for generations.

Beardstown is a blue-collar town on the Illinois River. It’s famous for its watermelons, meatpacking plant and not much else.

My parents grew up just a few miles away in Schuyler County. So, I can remember a number of trips to Beardstown to buy melons or hardware for weekend home improvement projects at my grandmother’s house.

My impression 40 years ago?

Well, my 10-year-old self would have described it as a redneck place. I guess I used that term because it was rural and REALLY white. And I have no doubt that those from more urban areas would have used that term to describe me.

After all, I grew up on a farm near Galesburg. Every Tuesday, we shipped a truckload of hogs either to the slaughter plants in Monmouth or Beardstown.

If you work in a meat plant, you may spend much of your day swinging a knife and standing in animal blood. It’s tough, often brutal, work. For years, it was work done mainly by working-class whites. But several decades ago, the plant began hiring immigrants. And community diversity followed.

It wasn’t always an easy melding of cultures. I remember my mother taking my Grandma Wanda to a Kentucky Fried Chicken not far from the packing plant. Grandma became agitated when some men spoke Spanish the next table over.

In a booming voice, she said, “These people should speak English if they want to live in America.”

My mother, who had done much humanitarian work in Latin America, wanted to crawl under the table.

Unfortunately, today on the national stage, intolerant opinions like those once expressed by my grandma too often are drowning out notions of love and acceptance.

When I hear politicians say immigrants are lazy, I can’t help but scratch my head. No one who has chosen to work in a slaughterhouse is afraid to work. Immigrants often take the most physically demanding jobs in hopes that their children will have a better life.

Now, you’ll hear some politicians say they have nothing against immigrants, just illegal immigration. But to quote George W. Bush, “Wouldn’t you cross a river to feed your family?”

Regardless, talk of illegal immigration often is nothing more than a smokescreen for condemnation of all immigrants. President Donald Trump’s infamous remarks about people coming from “s---hole” countries was about legal immigration.

While strolling through the store aisles in Beardstown, I was a long way from the poisonous rhetoric of Washington.

I just saw ordinary people who are black, brown and white not just working together but expressing genuine empathy.

While there may not be much reason to feel encouraged by Washington, I saw plenty of reasons to be hopeful in Beardstown.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. Reach him at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.

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