Monday, June 9, 2008

Two more stories with (unexpressed) rural angles

Two other stories in today's New York Times had distinct rural angles, but the authors (and/or editors) chose not to express them.

One was Dan Barry's story about the house in Crandon, Wisconsin where six young people, aged 14-20, were killed last fall by a local sheriff's deputy. He was the estranged boyfriend of one of the victims, Jordanne Murray. I wrote about the event shortly after it occurred in October, 2007.

Barry's story is about the plan to raze the house where the shooting took place, as if to expunge the ghosts, the memories of that awful event, for the town. As I read of the plan to get rid of the house, it struck me that this is the sort of thing that would not happen in a city. Indeed, Barry suggests that with his description of Crandon as a "place of 2,000 residents related by blood, by church, by school, or by standing together in line for dipped cones at the Eats ’n’ Treats stand." That is, while cities and neighborhoods within them would certainly mourn the loss of young people following such a tragedy, it seems unlikely that the literal place -- the house -- would loom so large in their consciousness as to need destroying. But this house is as well known to Crandon residents as, in a sense, were the young people who were killed there. Of course, it is better known now.

One Crandon resident is reported to have said, "It's like an infection; until you clean that infection, you are not going to heal." Other locals are reported as saying no one would be willing to live in the house now. Barry calls the house razing, set for June 21, a "communal, cathartic event," again invoking the relevance of community -- small-town community-- to a plan by which they will collectively grieve and remember the town's children.

The other story with a rural angle -- or at least a non-metropolitan one -- is headlined, "Local Officials Skirting Federal Rules in a Bid to Snare Illegal Aliens." It reports on state and local crackdowns on unauthorized immigration, and the focus is on Santa Rosa, Florida, in the state's panhandle. There, a multi-county task force, which did not include Immigration and Customs Enforcement, arrested workers at three local employers in February. Local law enforcement officials indicate that they were motivated to act against the unauthorized immigrants for identity theft based on complaints from the community. But those complaints were not about identity theft. They were essentially cultural and also reflected concern about jobs and the economic impact of the migrants. Here' s a quote from Damien Cave's story:

Interviews with more than 25 residents and police officers suggest that the views of Harry T. Buckles, 68, a retired Navy corpsman, are common. Outside his home in Gulf Breeze, Mr. Buckles said the main problem with today’s Hispanic immigrants was that they did not assimilate.

Even after hundreds flowed in to rebuild Santa Rosa County, Mr. Buckles said: “They didn’t become part of the community. They didn’t speak the language.”

Echoing the comments of others, he said he became irritated when he heard Spanish at the Winn-Dixie and saw a line of immigrants sending money home at the Western Union. Mr. Buckles said he feared his community would lose its character and become like Miami, with its foreign-born majority and common use of Spanish.

“We see things nationwide and we know that we could be overwhelmed,” he said.

Yet in spite of these residents' perception, just 3 % of Santa Rosa's population is Hispanic, which is well below the national average.

Cave provides some regional context for what is happening in the Florida panhandle, noting that Mississippi enforces strict laws on false documentation. There, about 1.7% of the state's 2.9 million residents were born abroad, and only about half are in the United States legally.

I wonder if the cultural resistance in places like northern Florida is, in part, because immigrants have not been in these communities for very long, as opposed to say Des Moines or Omaha which have higher percentages of Hispanic residents. Certainly Hispanics have not been in northern Florida as long as they have been in Miami!

Or perhaps it is also because the immigrants' numbers seem greater than they actually are in the microcosm of a small town like Milton, population 7,000. That might lead residents to feel more threatened at the possible loss of culture and identity, as suggested by the quote from Mr. Buckles. Urban residents, who tend to be more diverse and less static in many respects, arguably have a greater capacity to adapt to the change represented by the migrant population, and they are arguably less threatened by it.

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