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N.C. Officials Learn from Mexico Visits


Now, many people from Latin America look to the United States to find work. And this week, we've been listening to the effort to adapt to a rapidly growing immigrant population in North Carolina. The influx has rattled those who run the schools, social services, and police departments. To help them cope, a unique program sends local officials to Mexico for a week.

In a second of two reports, NPR's Jennifer Ludden examines the impact that trip has had once the officials return home.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Ask organizer Millie Ravenel what difference her program, Latino Initiative, makes, and you'll hear the story of Rick Givens. He was on the Chatham County Commission back in 1998.

Ms. MILLIE RAVENEL (Executive Director, Latino Initiative): He was the chair of the county commissioners, actually, who had written a letter to the INS, saying come and get these undocumented workers and route them back to their homes.

LUDDEN: Givens was frustrated at how much illegal immigrants were costing his county in public services. Then he took the weeklong trip to Mexico, touring impoverished villages, sharing meals with families whose children had all left for the U.S.

Ms. RAVENEL: When he came back, the media was right there saying, you know, well, Mr. Givens, what did you learn? And it was so amazing. And he said, well, I learned that I was wrong.

LUDDEN: Givens confirms he still feels that way today. Not that it's wrong to oppose illegal immigration, just wrong to think that a local official can do anything to stop such a mass influx, given Mexican desires, and U.S. economic demands. So Givens turned to better integrating North Carolina's Mexicans, which is what most people in this program say they aim for.

Sarah Bradshaw is social services director in rural Sampson County. On her trip to Mexico last year, she was struck by cultural differences.

Ms. SARAH BRADSHAW (Social Services Director, Sampson County): To see - walk along and just see a child all by herself, you know, just walking along the street. That's customary there. And that, you know, seen in our area, we would immediately, you know, get a call - my office would - and it would be taken as, you know, a neglect case.

LUDDEN: Back in North Carolina, Bradshaw lodged an effort to educate Hispanics about U.S. laws and the services offered. But it wasn't easy. Her colleague, County Manager Scott Sauer, says they first set up an information booth near the local Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store.

Mr. SCOTT SAUER (County Manager, Sampson County): As we tried to usher them in to a room over in the corner, it was almost providing the fear that we were setting them up for some type of an immigration sting. And they were very uncomfortable following us down a hall and into a remote location.

LUDDEN: So Bradshaw set up her booth at a local port processing plant, where hundreds of Latinos worked.

Unidentified Woman #1: This is our table. Hi, Olivia.

LUDDEN: On this day, dozens of workers stop by between shifts to collect Spanish language pamphlets on childcare, Medicaid, and English classes. Health Department officials conduct free blood sugar level tests to check for diabetes.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Foreign Language)

Mr. JOSE SANCHEZ (Port Worker): (Speaking Foreign Language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Jose Sanchez winces at the prick in his finger, but gets a good reading.

Unidentified Woman #3: One twenty-two.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LUDDEN: Sanchez says he's been in the U.S. four years and this is the closest he has ever come to a doctor.

Since the Latino Initiative began eight years ago, participants say that the projects that have grown from it have helped stop an outbreak of rubella, helped recruit and license more badly needed nurses from among North Carolina's Hispanics, and have saved public money by informing qualified immigrants how to use their Tax I.D. Number to get insurance. Yet, not everyone is impressed.

Mr. JUVENCIO PERALTA (Latino Initiative): (Speaking Foreign Language)

LUDDEN: Juvencio Peralta does outreach for a community college in eastern North Carolina. As he pins up flyers to recruit more Hispanic students, he says the Latino Initiative is a great idea. In fact, he helped develop it. But driving to his next stop, Peralta says he's been disappointed that not all who go on the trips take the programs seriously.

Mr. PERALTA: And some big corporations here, I mean, they don't. They just -it's something that just looks good, you know...

LUDDEN: On the resume.

Mr. PERALTA: On the resume.

LUDDEN: Peralta also wonders why spend money going all the way to Mexico, when there's plenty of Latinos living in poverty right here in North Carolina? Still, Peralta agrees with the programs' founders, that so far, the immigration debate in North Carolina is not as divisive as it's gotten in some states. And Millie Ravenel would like to think her program has something to do with that. She points to lasting bonds it builds among whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

Ms. RAVENEL: There are people from all of those communities, who can pick up the phone and call somebody on that other side of the community, and get a call back. That's been incredible for us, that leaders will tell us, I get a call back now.

LUDDEN: And seeing Mexico firsthand can change attitudes profoundly. Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton says it made him realize the attraction of the U.S. is more than just a bigger paycheck.

Mr. JIMMY THORNTON (Sheriff, Sampson County): I thought that they just came over for the sake of working, OK. But they're coming over for the sake of better opportunities, all right? And the opportunities are here for anyone.

LUDDEN: We've got to figure out how to live our immigrants, says Thornton, because they're not going back to Mexico.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find the first part of Jennifer's report at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.