Chester County offers resounding proof that immigration can work in this country. Still, life remains a monumental adjustment for many of the newcomers.

Chester County offers resounding proof that immigration can work in this country. Still, life remains a monumental adjustment for many of the newcomers.

The overt smell of mushroom compost can be overwhelming in Kennett Square, the self-proclaimed mushroom capital of the world. On State Street, inside La Communidad Hispana, executive director Isidoro Gonzalez is crying. But his tears of rage quickly subside as pride takes over.


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“I have a lot of admiration and respect for what this Mexican community has gone through,” says Gonzalez (pictured below). “The people who come here see a vast opportunity. They have a dream. I see their faces. So many put their lives at risk. Now I try to get them to use that struggle for strength.”

A little more than a mile east of Kennett Square, Old Baltimore Pike runs through Toughkenamon, where thousands of Mexican immigrants—legal and illegal—work and live as paisanos (countrymen) on and around dozens of mushroom farms. In between, there’s New Garden Shopping Center and the McDonald’s everyone claims was the nation’s first to provide a bilingual menu board. At the Giant, there are all-Latino food isles, and rumors of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) raids that may be just that—rumors. The fear, though, is real.

Old Baltimore Pike becomes State Street in the center of Kennett Square’s quaint, historic downtown. Across from the post office and the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library, there are signs of progress—literally. A law offices sign is duplicated in Spanish: “Oficinas de Abogados.” And La Michoacana, a popular Mexican ice cream shop, represents the American dream to one former mushroom-harvesting family.

As the national spotlight intensifies on immigration and its controversial, comprehensive Congressional reform, Kennett Square and the rest of Chester County may be in a unique position to serve as models to which other places around the nation might aspire. While it’s not perfect, immigration is working here. At the very least, folks in Chester County have been at it long enough to make it work.

Like elsewhere in the county, Kennett Square’s is a story of “cooperation, cultural diversity and inter-agency collaboration and risk taking,” says Laurie Szoke of the Chester County Cooperative Extension at Penn State University.

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Szoke is one of the facilitators of the Cosecha (Harvest): Cultivating Community coalition, which works with more than 10 other agencies to reach out to and engage migrant and immigrant families. Successes include a growing 4-H Club and a Teens Networking Together program organizers say is fast becoming a national model.

In Kennett Square, there are the Alliance for Better Housing and La Comunidad Hispana, Gonzalez’s bilingual advocacy organization for health, social services and education, which also has an office in Coatesville. Nearby Avondale is home to Misión Santa Maria, a Philadelphia Catholic Archdiocese outreach center.

A Brooklyn-born first-generation Puerto Rican, Gonzalez hasn’t yet fielded how-to calls from around the nation or even the state, but he’d welcome them. “I don’t know if we’re a well-kept secret, but none of this is new to us,” he says. “Here, we’ve had a head start.”

When it comes to immigration, no one is sitting still. Chester County Commissioner Patrick C. O’Donnell is working to schedule a county-wide conference on Latino issues—the first of its kind in more than 25 years. Regionally, the Free Library of Philadelphia and the ACLU sponsored “Immigration: Pennsylvania at the Crossroads” in January. Meanwhile, support is growing for restricting the flow of undocumented immigrants into communities, and sensitivities still rage over Philly cheese-steak kingpin Joey Vento’s “This is America, Please Order in English” sign.

In Chester County, “there’s a segment of the population that’s contributing, largely law-abiding and largely here to work and raise a family,” says O’Donnell. “Here, that population has not seemed like a piranha.” Chester County has a long and successful history of immigration, first with African-Americans, then Italians and Puerto Ricans, and now Mexicans. Everyone in Kennett Square—from employers and policemen to the mayor and school superintendent—is “warm to immigrants and migrants,” Gonzalez says. “With that understanding, we all see the issue in a different light.”

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MOST IMMIGRANTS WERE migrants before settling down and bringing their families to Chester County. More than anything, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which allowed immigrants to adjust their legal status in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is responsible for the large local Mexican enclaves. Such were the findings of Victor Garcia, a professor of anthropology and associate director of Cultural and Ethnic Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Two aspects of that immigration law—general amnesty and the Special Agricultural Workers program (SAW)—had the most impact. Eligible workers were granted work authorization visas, then required to get “green card” (they’re actually pink) status or permanent residency thereafter. As residents, they then sponsored the legal immigration of their wives and children. In accordance with INS estimates, 1,560 illegal migrants in Chester County took advantage of the program.

Meanwhile, according to 2000’s U.S. Census, the number of Hispanics in the county grew from 3,728 in 1990 to 8,452 in 2000. The Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia estimates the number of Hispanic Catholics there has increased from 2,000 in 1992 to more than 10,000 now. Nearly all are Mexican or Mexican-American. Kennett Square is now more than 28 percent Hispanic—80 percent are Mexican.

IRCA never addressed those who continued to enter the country, nor does it attempt to limit visas or lengthen the wait to get one. Sources say it can take between five and eight years for an individual to arrive legally. Backlogs for family members, brought in at a cost of approximately $1,000 each, can be 10 years. Tired of waiting and contending with bureaucratic red tape, families often cross the border without using the proper immigration channels. “They can’t wait,” Gonzalez says. “Then, even the challenge to reunite is difficult.”

Gradually, the area’s Mexican immigrants are leaving the mushroom industry for work in light manufacturing and service industries. They’re using trades they arrived with, taking care of horses or children or building homes. Women clean houses and provide childcare. They’re cashiers. The 2004 film A Day without a Mexican suggests how dependant America has become. “That movie is totally Chester County,” Gonzalez says. “We rely on that population.”

But in these uncertain legal and political times, there’s less—or at least more subtle—immigrant movement. Even those who move through traditionally safe Kennett Square do so in fear—a fear of uniforms, of the future. They literally “walk the rails” behind town to access services. “We can’t have a whole population of people who are afraid to call the police, use medical services, use our schools or feel secure at a grocery store,” O’Donnell says.

Everyone—including Chester County—needs bipartisan guidance on a national scale. During his State of the Union address in January, President Bush outlined the continued need to secure the nation’s border. He’s upped spending on this initiative from $4.6 billion in 2001 to $10.4 billion this year, and will have doubled the number of border patrol agents to 18,000 when his second terms ends. He also called for enhancing work-site enforcement, creating a temporary worker program, promoting assimilation and solving “without animosity and without amnesty” the status of illegal immigrants already here.

As of now, there are extremes—from damn-it-all deportation advocates to amnesty angels—and little middle-ground. Bush’s $1.2 billion Secure Fence Act, which was adopted in September 2006, calls for 700 more miles of 15-foot, double-layered fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. It may be the most controversial piece of the puzzle—or the start of a careful crackdown.

The U.S. population, which topped 300 million in October 2006, rose by 15 million between 2000 and 2005, with immigration accounting for 42 percent of the increase, according to the U.S. Census. There were 43 million Hispanics as of July 1, 2006, double 1990’s total. Demographers expect minorities will comprise 40 percent of U.S. residents by 2015. The most consistent estimates of illegal—or undocumented—immigrants living here range from 11 to 12 million.

It’s difficult to know how many workers are unauthorized, but estimates range from 50 to 70 percent. Because they face greater scrutiny, large mushroom farms require identification and complete I-9 forms for all employees. So it’s scuttlebutt that many of the small producers’ employees aren’t legal. And since mushroom production has gone year-round, farms are ineligible to apply for guest workers through the H2A program, so there are currently no legal mechanisms for recruiting more guest workers—a constant need.

Jim Angelucci, general manager at Phillips Mushroom Farms, a third-generation, family-owned Kennett Square institution since the 1920s, says the H2A doesn’t work. The mushroom industry is no longer seasonal (it harvests 365 days a year) and can’t take advantage of it as written. “We plant a perishable product—and if we don’t pick it, we lose it,” he says about his industry, which has a competitive global market. “We’re nothing without our workforce.”

Pennsylvania produces nearly 60 percent of all mushrooms in the United States, according to 2005 National Agricultural Statistics Service research. Of the 505 million pounds of mushrooms produced in Pennsylvania, 380 million pounds—or 75 percent—are produced in southern Chester County.

In the early 1970s, Phillips started employing Mexicans en masse. Now, 90 percent of his workforce is Mexican. The remainder is also Latino, usually Puerto Rican or Dominican.

Angelucci offers retirement plans, health insurance and other incentives to attract and retain workers. But he’s still losing Mexican labor to landscaping, construction and restaurant jobs, suggesting those industries may be less restrictive—and law-abiding.

“I guarantee all our workers pay taxes, because we take it out,” he says. “Everyone who comes through our door, whether his name is Garcia or Smith, goes through indoctrination. We do all we’re legally required to do, and if we go too far, then we have an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaint filed against us.”

CONCEPCION BAEZA AND Juventino Mireles (pictured above) both have fathers who work on southern Chester County mushroom farms. Concepcion’s father, Toribio, spent 10 years picking strawberries in California first. Juventino’s dad, Aurelio—a former teacher in Mexico—has been here 20 years.
Concepcion, 19, comes from Moroleon in Guanajuato, Mexico; 17-year-old Juventino is from Toluca near Mexico City. Here, they’re seniors at Avon Grove High School in West Grove. Both take French as a third language and are involved with the Upward Bound Program at nearby Lincoln University. Both want more than their parents.

“I couldn’t picture myself working on a mushroom farm,” Juventino says. “My father says I better get an education so I can get a better job. He doesn’t want me to suffer like he is now.”

Juventino arrived in America 2 1/2 years ago. The third oldest among four brothers and two sisters, he only saw his father every other year, when he returned home on vacation. Things are different now. The family lives in a trailer, a step up from an uncle’s garage in West Grove, where they first lived without beds, a kitchen or heat.

“We didn’t know anything and we didn’t have anything,” Juventino says. “We didn’t have transportation to get to places we had to go, but I want to be professional; I want to be educated. I decided that’s why I would struggle here.”

Four years ago, Concepcion arrived with her mother and two younger sisters. Her mom, Angela, first worked as a packer in a mushroom house. Now she’s a custodian at Avon Grove Charter School, working second shift, 3-11 p.m. Concepcion sees her on weekends.

As a packer, “she came home really, really tired,” Concepcion says. “I could tell she was tired even when she told me she was OK.”

At first, they lived in an aunt’s apartment, taking over the living and dining rooms. On rainy days, the apartment “floated,” says Concepcion. A few months in, they lost everything in a flood. Avon Grove High’s gymnasium became their home for three days, then the house of a friend of her mother’s. “I just wanted to run away and go back to my house in Mexico,” she says.

When her father crossed the country to join them, they returned to the flooded apartment in Avondale. “It’s all we knew,” Concepcion says. “We just bought mattresses and started all over again.”

In February 2006, the family bought a house, leaving Concepcion with a bitter-sweet pill. “We did want a house. But with a house, we have to stay longer to pay for it,” she says. “I’m not sure I want that bond here.”

There are differences between here and home. In Chester County, both teenagers experience discrimination, in school and out. Yet their confidence is remarkable—and unusual. Most Mexicans withdraw, and many cave to the mantra others impose on them: Wait until next year.

“Most stay in basic classes even though they’re capable,” Concepcion says. “It’s so hard; they don’t want to even try—to even fight.”

The other day, though, Concepcion broke through. She influenced a friend to change her mind and add pre-calculus/trigonometry to next year’s schedule.

Juventino simplifies it: “It all depends on you,” he says.

Jon Iannacone, the teens’ student support specialist through the Chester County Intermediate Unit Migrant Education Program (MEP), advises his charges to avoid ambivalence. As soon as they’re eligible (after fives years of residency), he tells them to become citizens, then vote to change public policy.

In another year, Concepcion will apply for citizenship. She wants to change some laws. “This country is based on immigration,” she says. “The American Indians taught others how to cook and fish, so I don’t understand why the people here now all think they’re kings. We all came here as immigrants.”

MEP IS FOCUSED on cultural assimilation as much as education. It provides federally funded supplemental education for children (preschool-age 21) of migratory farm workers. They qualify for three years of service and typically come directly from Mexico to Chester County. Categorically, they get free lunch. But district-to-district, sometimes even that’s a battle—let alone scheduling realistic classes or encouraging athletic participation and attendance at the prom.

“We take nothing for granted,” says Nicole Prum, supervisor of MEP’s Chester County Intermediate Unit. “We have to be that connection between home and school.”

But since March 2006, the advent of more systematic state-mandated quality-control procedures, the lack of affordable housing and general immigration issues have kept MEP numbers down. These days, the primary reason for eligibility must stem from parents’ specific relocation for temporary or seasonal agricultural employment. “In the past, it was a reason, but now it has to be the first and only reason,” Prum says. “We have to deny more families.”

Three years ago, statewide enrollment peaked at 16,669 students. This year, it’s just 6,970—1,370 of them in Chester County. Last year, that total was 1,788 students; two years ago, it was 2,502. Locally, almost 100 percent are Mexican, the vast majority in the Kennett Consolidated, Avon Grove and Oxford school districts. Likewise, the Alliance for Better Housing has done its duty. It has renovated existing homes and built townhouses and single homes for moderate and low-income families of all races. It also provides home-ownership counseling and loan packaging, including USDA Rural Development 502 loans with interest rates of 1-5.75 percent. They’ve helped some 200 families buy homes.

The alliance’s board president, Jose Colon, is keenly suited to his position. Not only is he a commercial lender with DNB First, he’s Puerto Rican. He and his wife, a fourth grade teacher in the Oxford School District, couldn’t find affordable housing before settling on a smaller home in West Grove and adding a second story.

Still, the alliance is fighting an uphill battle. Aside from the rising cost of land, there’s the fact that affordable housing isn’t welcome in all communities. “Yet for folks who want to become part of the American dream—who don’t even know they can have a bank account—when they find out they can own a home, they follow through and save a lot of money fast,” Colon says. “It’s admirable.”

Still, for many Mexicans, overcrowded conditions in rundown houses and apartments are rampant—and the spillover into neighboring towns often isn’t wanted.

Residents in the predominantly African-American East End of West Chester have felt the impact. “They done turned this into Mexico City,” says Vandella Williams, an East End Neighborhood Association (EENA) board member and a staffer at Charles Melton Arts and Education Center. “The rents are so high, 15 people pile on top of each other.”

Marvin Porter, EENA’s past president and co-founder, says the association has reached out to Mexicans, but adds that he gets either no response or a negative one. “They want to remain invisible because they’re illegal,” he says.

At La Comunidad Hispana, no one Gonzalez serves—some 8,000 low-income individuals a year—is required to be documented. At Project Salud, its award-winning, nurse-managed primary healthcare center, 96 percent of patients are uninsured. Yet many immigrants refuse a free ride. “They return in a week or a month and say, ‘Here’s $20 or $30 for someone else,’” says Gonzalez. “We don’t want to change that sense of self-sufficiency.”

As a sign of progress, Gonzalez has documented an increasing interest in La Communidad Hispana’s 10-week conversational Spanish classes—attended by detectives, attorneys and regular folks with Spanish-speaking neighbors. On April 1, he began offering a satellite class at the Chester County Government Center, too. Even so, Commissioner O’Donnell says much of the good work done for immigrants in Chester County has gone “way under the radar.” In fact, a lot of it has been invisible—for a reason.

“It’s the same fear that maybe this magazine article would draw the attention of INS to southern Chester County,” he says. “Hopefully not.”

O’Donnell admits that no one—even at the county level—knows how to “document the undocumented,” and no one wants that “contentious a political issue.” So he characterizes business as usual as a “head in the sand” approach—essentially a “don’t ask, don’t tell” unwritten policy. “That might be a little overstated, but not by much,” he says. “No one wants to rock the boat.”

THE CENTRAL THRUST of Colin A. Hanna’s position is clearly evident in the West Chester man’s website address: The site is a project of his parent company, Let Freedom Ring, a public policy non-profit promoting Constitutional government, economic freedom and traditional values. He founded it in 2003, after leaving his post as a Chester County commissioner.

This country, says Hanna (pictured above), must secure its borders—particularly the southern border. It’s a matter of national security, he contends, and the first step in any serious immigration reform plan. “The number of immigrants entering this country and crossing that border is quantitatively staggering,” says Hanna.

That’s why he promotes “a state-of-the-art border fence”—diagram and all—on his site, suggesting 200 well-screened legal crossing gates. Hanna calls himself a political activist—but a non-radical one. He suggests he’s an ally, not an antagonist: “I’ve gone about this in a calm, logical way,” he says. “I haven’t pushed any hot buttons.”

Hanna insists he’s not anti-immigration. His broad-based positions are more national—triggered by 9-11, which “showed us how vulnerable we are to a relatively small number of terrorists.”

According to Hanna, about 100,000 illegal “other than Mexican” immigrants enter the country from Mexico each year. “They’re breaking in illegally,” he says. “And it’s not because they want one of those strawberry-picking jobs in Southern California.”

Gonzalez says 9-11 “made us think this way.” But he makes his position clear: “For countries that build walls, they always come down,” he says. “This country is about building bridges. A wall is contradictory. For me, it’s un-American. What I see here, I’d like to see elsewhere. When I go to the YMCA, I see diversity. I see people working together, working out together, laughing together.”

But it’s a mistake, Hanna says, to view immigration solely in economic or social terms. And while he is concerned with the effect a loss of migrant/immigrant workers would have on Chester County, he’s more focused on national security, crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking and overall public health.

Nonetheless, pre-9-11 gains aimed at configuring a bi-national, neighborly solu-tion have been lost, IUP’s Garcia says. “Today, the war on terrorism and rising concerns over unauthorized immigration have become entangled and are treated as a single problem,” he says. “At the root of this entanglement is a fear that unauthorized non-citizens in our midst may be potential terrorists.”

Phillips’ Angelucci, whose father and brothers have all worked in the mushroom industry, sees a looming national security issue in the potential collapse of farms—unless a fair, functional guest worker program can be established. “Crops have to be grown here or they’ll be grown somewhere else,” he says. “If one way to defend against an enemy is to cut off its food source, and we need to start importing food from everywhere else, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it isn’t the best thing for us.”

ISIDORO GONZALEZ IS a medical school graduate. He nearly began a residency in New York City when his brother was diagnosed with HIV-AIDS. He became his caregiver, but they both lost the battle in 1991.

Living in the epicenter of the epidemic, the heavily Latino Lower East Side, Gonzalez (pictured above) couldn’t help but extend health services in the neighborhood’s homes and hospitals. His at-large care soon expanded to advocacy, housing and interfacing with crude contractors who often mistreated or didn’t pay immigrant workers. They’d take them off the streets for a few days’ use, then often leave them stranded in New Jersey.

“They were re-traumatized,” Gonzalez says. “Crossing the border, they felt the same way—anxious; fearful of getting caught; and unsure where to go, how to get home or who to call.”

Gonzalez worked at Project Hospitality and in conjunction with the Latino Civic Association to establish a gathering place. It literally began with fresh, hot coffee. Soon after, it became a work center where a tracking system was established to make employers accountable for those they picked up and hired.

Likewise, La Communidad Hispana was established in 1973—long before Gonzalez’s tenure—to represent the Hispanic farm worker against then-difficult mushroom farm employers. Years later, the progress is remarkable. La Communidad Hispana has just joined three mushroom farms—Phillips, Kaolin and ToJo—in an on-site primary healthcare initiative called Work Healthy, which is funded by the farms, community partnerships and a $489,000 matching grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We have exercise classes right on the farms,” Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez tells the story of one Mexican woman who ran to get in shape for her illegal yet heroic border crossing. Twice she was caught. She trained some more. On her third try, she made it. Now, with Work Healthy, she’s running again—for a far different purpose. “She ran so she could overcome the No. 1 hurdle (the border fence),” he says. “Now I tell her, ‘Run to maintain good health.’”

In the end, immigration isn’t a “Mexican thing,” says Gonzalez, it’s a human thing. He sees the faces of so many who left children back home only to sleep by the dumpsters behind the McDonald’s, then share a room and save to pay for their family to come, too.

“If you’re earning low wages and working in poverty and you can get across a border and look for something better, anyone would do that,” Gonzalez says.


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