Accessibility links

Breaking News

Immigration Bill Casts Shadow Over Small Town


A bipartisan agreement reached in the U.S. Senate Thursday over an immigration reform bill now appears to be in jeopardy. A bipartisan compromise bill failed Friday to get the protection it needed to go forward. The compromise measure would have offered a tiered system of legalizing the status of many of the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

But what is the impact of the legislation on the people and towns across America? A look at one small town that has a high proportion of immigrants.

It's an afternoon gathering of Hispanic families in Georgetown, Delaware. Fifteen years ago, Georgetown was a predominantly Anglo-American small town, full of old Victorian houses and old-fashioned American traditions and values. But in the 1990s Hispanic immigrants began moving to town.

Mike Wyatt is mayor of Georgetown and says, "They were never really visible to anybody riding through ‘till early 1992-1993. And then it was all of a sudden, ‘Where did all these people come from?’"

They came from Central American countries, such as Guatemala, in search of jobs and better lives: primarily, by working in three large chicken processing plants in the area. At first there was some resistance from local townspeople toward outsiders. But as more Hispanic workers came, some set up businesses and became vital to the local economy.

Mr. Wyatt estimates almost half the population of Georgetown is now Hispanic. "The economy of Georgetown, Sussex County, chicken plants, poultry, I would hate to imagine what it would be like without the Hispanic workers. They have to be the ones keeping it going," he says.

It is communities like Georgetown that are caught in the firestorm surrounding immigration legislation. Mr. Wyatt estimates that 80 to 90 percent of Hispanic workers in the area could be in the country illegally, and says they are able to gain employment through forged documents.

“We see it all the time, the police department sees is all the time. It is rumored that you can go someplace in Pennsylvania and get an insurance card, a license plate for your car, driver’s license, social security card, all for a fee. And up front, everything looks legal."

There are two schools of thought in immigration reform. One wants to close down the borders, deport all illegal immigrants, and jail employers and others who provide assistance to the illegals. The other wants some form of amnesty and a program that allows people to come to the U.S. at least temporarily as guest workers.

Jessica Eckerd is Executive Director of the Eagle Forum, a conservative organization that supports border security first, and no amnesty for illegal workers. "When the person chooses to come here through the proper channels in a legal way,” she says, “we see the benefits of those legal immigrants. When an immigrant comes here who breaks the law, who is draining our schools and our health care system, and the American tax payers fund those things, then we see a negative impact."

Zaida Guajardo is deputy director for "La Esperanza," a social services organization in Georgetown. She advocates immigration reform, some form of amnesty, and a guest worker program. Her organization does not ask people their status, and could be penalized if tougher immigration laws go into effect.

"The fact that we will be penalized, even fines and incarceration, I think is ridiculous. I think that rather than penalizing or having such a strict bill, we have go to find a way to, I guess, work with immigration reform."

The U.S. Senate has been split on the issue. And the fate of many small communities around the U.S., like Georgetown, hangs in the balance. No one in this town wants to see the harsher measure pass.

"I believe the local economy, as far as the chicken producers, I honestly believe they would be shut down,” says Mayor Wyatt. “There are that many employees that work there. There is probably that many that are illegal. I don't know if companies could stand that."