John Sampier first noticed his community’s changing complexion on a balmy autumn day on the soccer field in 1994. The then mayor of Rogers, Ark., asked a coach if the Latino players gracefully kicking the ball around were a traveling team. No, the coach replied. They were the mayor’s newest constituents. Drawn to jobs in the nearby poultry plants, immigrants were beginning to flock to Rogers, a town nestled in the heart of the Ozarks that was 98 percent white in 1990. It was an astonishing sight for Sampier, 54, who had never before met a Latino. His response: to form Arkansas’s first Hispanic soccer league. The players were so thrilled that they invited him to their first awards banquet. When he addressed them in Spanish, they went wild, chanting, “¡Viva el alcalde!” (“Long live the mayor!”).
Not long after his day at the soccer field, Sampier hired Al Lopez as his special consultant. A big teddy bear of a guy from Puerto Rico, Lopez was a musician known as Papa Rap and an adviser at Rogers High School who had been working to bring the Anglo and Latino kids together. Now Lopez was asked to do the same in the community at large. When a white resident would call city hall, horrified that her Mexican neighbors were slaughtering a goat in the yard, he would dash off to soothe tempers. Sampier and Lopez became fast friends–downing Coronas on Friday evenings as they contemplated how to keep their small town stitched together.
That was then. Today the threads seem to be fraying. In the 1998 election, Sampier, who had been mayor for 18 years, lost to Steve Womack, a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard who pledged to get tough on illegal immigrants. “If you’re coming to America illegally,” he declared in his campaign, “you don’t want to come to Rogers.” A year later the Immigration and Naturalization Service had two agents temporarily housed in the Rogers Police Department. And in March that collaboration–and the alleged abuses it generated–prompted the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) to file a class-action suit against the city and the police for racial profiling. As Lopez sometimes wonders: “What happened here, man?”
Womack’s anti-immigrant fervor is well documented with even the former President George W. Bush balking at his approach. After riding a nativist backlash to change into office, Womack quickly instituted changes very reminiscent of much darker times in the South.
The year Womack was elected, the INS arrived in the area. First, Rep. Asa Hutchinson–the local congressman whom Morris had presented with a petition signed by 2,800 people calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration–cut the ribbon on an INS office in nearby Ft. Smith. Then in late 1999 more INS agents appeared–members of newly created “quick-response teams” designed to patrol hot spots in the Midwest and South. Until their office was completed late last year in Fayetteville–just down the highway from Rogers–two of the agents worked out of the Rogers Police Department, sometimes riding along with officers. Initially, some of the cops “were ignorant of our laws,” says Rod Reyes, supervisory special agent at the INS–laws that bar local police from immigration enforcement. “They thought, ‘We’re gonna go out and round ‘em up for you’.” His reply: “If you start doing that, all of us are gonna get fired.”
Almost immediately after INS agents moved into the police department early last year, complaints from Latinos began streaming in–stories of traffic stops that became fishing expeditions as cops sought proof of legal residency. One driver the police might have wished to avoid: Donna Hutchinson, who’s part Native American and the former sister-in-law of Asa Hutchinson. “The only reason for stopping me was to check my license and make sure I’m supposed to be here,” she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. By last summer, the pastors at St. Vincent de Paul Church noticed that formerly overcrowded services now had rows of empty pews. Hispanic churchgoers, they heard, were afraid to leave their homes.
And yes, that is THE Donna Hutchinson who became a state representative. Don’t feel too sorry for her being a victim of prejudice and racial profiling though as she obviously didn’t learn anything from it-targeting Latinos, gays, and black-gays all in the last session. But enough about that.
Since then, the Latino population in NWA has continued to grow dramatically, so much so that the population shift was taken into account during redistricting. Womack hasn’t been alone in working to alienate Latinos from voting Republican though, the whole party has embraced an anti-immigrant platform that is bad policy at best and racist at worst and is succeeding in driving Latino voters into the Democratic ranks in droves. And they won’t stop either. It’s like a drug for them and they’re going to keep getting their fix until they’ve totally alienated what is now the largest and fastest growing minority group in the nation.
Arkansas Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be moving in the right direction when it comes to reaching out to Arkansas Latinos. Democrats in Womack’s corner of the state have reached out to the new community. Ken Aden has made Latino outreach a focus of his campaign, as have a number of state house candidates, such as Edwin Sugg, running in what could be a competitive House District 88 that has a substantial Latino population. In fact, Democrats have recruited a candidate who could be the first Latina elected to the state legislature, Diana Gonzalez Worthen. That’s not to say that the old guard is totally on board. No one is going to forget or forgive Mark Pryor’s work against the DREAM Act, or Mike Ross standing up for Arizona’s racial profiling, but the party is making a lot of progress despite the lack of help from those two nimrods. The Democratic Party has always been supposed to be the home for ordinary people of all stripes and walks of life. We’re the party of the people, all people, and the party that will guarantee a seat at the table for Latino Arkansans. The other party though continues to elevate the likes of Steve Womack and the rest of the anti-Latino crowd (oh excuse me, they’re only “anti-illegal immigrant” they assure us…yeah right), some of which are far more rabid than Womack himself. That’s okay though, they can keep showing their true colors and we’ll keep reaching out, and we’ll see how this works out.