A Town's Two Faces

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?"

That question resonates far beyond Rogers's city limits. Its Latino population was quite possibly the fastest growing in the country--swelling fifteenfold in the past decade to nearly 20 percent of the town's 39,000 people, according to U.S. Census figures. Meanwhile the Hispanic population has been surging nationwide--most dramatically in Southern and Midwestern states like Arkansas, North Carolina and Georgia, all of which experienced 300 percent to 400 percent increases since 1990. There the newcomers often land in small towns, fueling economic growth, yet straining social services and, sometimes, scant supplies of tolerance.

Rogers is a case study in the promise and the pains of such growth. Upon their arrival, many in the Latino community had never even written a check. Today, thanks to a local program in personal finance started by a Cuban-born Kansan named Roland Goicoechea, more than 50 percent of Latinos in Rogers own their homes--exceeding the 45 percent national average for Hispanics. The number of those new homeowners who have defaulted on their loans: zero. "Peace and love by itself ain't gonna cut it," says Goicoechea, whose program was cited as a model for other cities by the Fannie Mae Foundation. "It's through education that you make a difference."

But as the number of Latinos in town has increased over the years, so too has the number of drug-related crimes, according to Police Chief Tim Keck; Rogers also saw its first gang activity and drive-by shootings. Those unsettling trends fueled a backlash against the town's new arrivals.

By 1997 Dan Morris had founded Americans for an Immigration Moratorium (AIM). A dabbler in Latino culture, Morris was a Latin American-studies minor in college and likes books on Mexican and pre-Columbian art. But he's become the leading anti-immigration voice in town, calling for such extreme measures as stripping deportees of their money and taking DNA samples from them. Morris sees no contradiction in these dual stances. His beef is with illegal immigrants, not legal residents. As undocumented workers flood the area, he contends, they drive down wages, steal jobs from "Americans" and burden schools and hospitals. These arguments struck a chord among many white residents. Soon their resentment blotted out distinctions between legals and illegals. Before long, AIM's meetings in the public library were standing-room only.

AIM repeatedly made headlines during the 1998 mayoral campaign. Attacking Sampier as a pro-immigration liberal and a lackey of the poultry industry, the group campaigned vigorously for Womack. To this day, Morris exults at having "kicked ole King John out." Sampier's consolation: an award the following year from the National Council of La Raza honoring him for his courage in standing up for Latinos.

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.

The complaints culminated in March when MALDEF's racial-profiling suit was filed. The cops, says Joe Berra of MALDEF, strayed from local law enforcement into immigration policing--a commingling of missions that is illegal and can undermine a community's trust in its cops. Chief Keck's reply: that his officers target criminals, not skin color, and that "we can't change the way we do things." So far there are only three named plaintiffs, and a judge has yet to certify a class. Yet the suit seems already to have made an impact: complaints of profiling are down.

These days Rogers is learning to live with tension amid the tranquillity. A recent ad that saturated local television--funded by a group allied with Morris--exhorted viewers to "say no to foreign workers." Yet over the Cinco de Mayo weekend, Latinos and whites twirled together to Lopez's salsa group, the Barrio Band. And the new Miss Rogers High School is Jessica Diaz--part Puerto Rican, part black and raised in Mexico. Lopez, who has worked wonders at bridging the ethnic divide, looks at kids like her, thinks of their promise and smiles. But "sometimes beneath that smile," he says, "there's worry."