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Immigrants Spark Economic Growth in Rural Oklahoma
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Immigrants Spark Economic Growth in Rural Oklahoma

Unlike many small towns in Oklahoma, Guymon has gotten busier and fuller, not emptier. Thanks to immigrants, downtown buildings are full, motels are booked and construction is constant.

Reporter Graham Brewer of Oklahoma Watch found that the town on the panhandle is the only city in Oklahoma where Hispanics have become the majority, with 52 percent of 11,442 residents in 2010. Guymon’s economic growth was spurred by Seaboard Foods, a meat-processing plant with 2,600 employees, most of them immigrants. Town officials say they don’t care about the newcomers’ ethnicity, pointing out that with every dollar earned by Seaboard workers, seven dollars in economic activity is generated.

Photo by Shawn Yorks/Guymon Daily Herald

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Graham’s Story Behind the Story

In the beginning, I was interested in Guymon, Okla., because of the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant. I heard that it had a significant Hispanic workforce, and having recently read “Tomatoland” by Brian Eastbrook ,I was curious about the working conditions on the killing floor.

At the time, two members of the Oklahoma Watch data mining team were looking through the newly available Census data and putting together a town by town comparison of Hispanic population changes from 2000 to 2010. Guymon immediately stood out. It was the only city in the state to become majority Hispanic, 52% to be precise. I would later find out the public school system is 67% Hispanic.

The Immigration in the Heartland fellowship gave me access to several local sources that could speak to the wellbeing and conditions of migrant workers in Oklahoma (Catholic Charities, Immigrants Rights Project, etc.). Everyone I spoke with who worked directly with the workers had never heard of any complaints, or really anything at all, about the Guymon pork plant. After a few weeks of correspondence with Seaboard Foods they declined to answer any direct questions or allow a tour, instead offering a very safe statement that offered no insight.

I traveled to Guymon and interviewed teachers, administrators, Hispanic advocates, local business owners, immigrant workers, and city officials. After my first day in town I was surprised by how little anyone I spoke with was concerned with immigration reform or even the citizenship status of the migrant workforce.

The vast majority of people I encountered agreed that even those workers who are undocumented were bringing prosperity and life to their once dying town. It was a hard notion to dispute. Guymon was, and is, growing rapidly. Several large businesses are still looking into locating there, and the wind energy boom in the panhandle is offering hundreds of more jobs within the next year.

When I reported this the response was mainly positive. I got the impression that most who read the article were not very surprised to learn that a town full of hard-working Hispanic families was doing well. However, I did get a few responses from people who asserted that nearly all the workers in town of Hispanic origin are undocumented. They also disagreed that migrant workers are simply filling jobs that local Caucasian workers don’t want.

I’d have to say that in the end, the part of the fellowship that most affected my reporting was the access to undocumented students at Santa Fe South. While they had little to nothing to do with migrant workers in Guymon, they gave me an invaluable insight into the daily life of an undocumented immigrant. It was like they allowed me to peer through a hole in the fence and catch a glimpse of life on the other side. Without that experience I don’t know that I would have looked at Guymon through the same lens.

The Institute for Justice and Journalism fellowship was easily one of the greatest opportunities to learn I have had as a reporter. Just meeting and picking the brains of the other fellows was education enough to make it worthwhile, and I can’t stress enough how much clearer the issue is after the sessions with Dan Kowalski and Martha Mendoza.

My finished product was a 1,600 word feature article and a two-part series that aired statewide on the three major NPR affiliates in Oklahoma. I also collaborated with the editor of the Guymon Daily Herald on a photo slideshow of the city’s economic and cultural diversity. One of the previously aforementioned members of our data mining team also contributed a data table at the bottom of the piece that shows Hispanic population changes in Oklahoma.

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