Not yet 9 a.m. on a warm fall day, freshmen Binh Hua and My Nguyen are in protective goggles, long hair pulled back, ready for their chemistry class in a Garden City Community College lab.
The teacher calls the class to order, calling the students “Busters,” short for “Broncbusters,” the college’s mascot and a reminder of this old West town’s history of raising cattle.
The Vietnamese 18-year-olds are a long way from the feedlots and cattle ranches of this Kansas town’s past. But they have both benefitted from the beef industry since their parents settled here to work in the huge Tyson beef-packing plant on the outskirts of town.
They see a bright future, having already completed high school in three years, planning to earn associate degrees next year and then both going on to a university.
"We [would] really like to graduate early because we think high school wasn’t challenging enough and we were looking for challenging courses and stuff,” Hua said, as her best friend completed her thought, adding the math and saying they chalked up enough credits to graduate early.
“Just to reward ourselves with more college, more school,” Hua said. Added Nguyen: “And we get a head start in college.”
Meet the newest chapter in an age-old American story. Since the days of “The Jungle,” immigrants have been the backbone of factories built by the U.S. meatpacking industry. The newcomers from Europe filled the slaughterhouses of the past, centered in Chicago and Kansas City. Now the newcomers flock to rural towns where the plants have been relocated, the workers consist of migrants from parts of Asia, Africa and Central America.
Meatpacking plants have always offered new Americans a platform for upward mobility, said Don Stull, a University of Kansas anthropologist who has studied Garden City, Kan., and other meatpacking towns for three decades. Oftentimes, first-generation Americans will be the last generation to work in the slaughterhouse.
“In the second generation, the children of those workers, often, because of the hard work of their parents, are able to go to college and then establish careers that don’t require them to labor as hard in such a distasteful environment as their parents did,” Stull said.
Here in Garden City, Hua’s folks both work the late shift -- her father on the hot, bloody kill floor, her tiny mother using a sharp knife to cut the hulks of beef. Their daughter knows it’s a sacrifice.
“My mom and dad just always said, ‘I’m doing this for you,’” Hua said.
Statistics point to the increasing diversity and poverty of rural meatpacking towns. But it’s difficult to find out just how the children of slaughterhouse workers are faring because government agencies -- including the US Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Education -- don’t track them. Neither do the dozen research institutes, policy think-tanks and advocacy organizations that Harvest Public Media contacted for this story.
Part of the reason this population of young immigrants and refugees is difficult to track is their legal status. While refugee kids have a ready path to citizenship, children whose parents brought them to the U.S. without documents are mostly flying under the radar. Like Oscar, an 18-year-old McDonald County High School senior who lives in Noel, Mo. Harvest Public Media isn’t using his last name because he is undocumented and he fears repercussions.
Though Oscar was born in Mexico, he’s spent virtually all his life in this rural town in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. His mother brought him here without papers when he was 2 to work at the local Tyson plant. The double shifts she worked deboning chicken made Oscar certain that his future would look different.
“Every time she came home her feet would hurt, her hands would hurt, her back would hurt and it got me sad because she was in pain after work,” Oscar said.
Oscar’s mom stopped working double shifts to support him and his three siblings when his stepdad entered the picture. He too worked at the Tyson plant up until he lost four fingers in a machine accident. Still, both of Oscar’s parents suggested he could get a job at the plant.
“But I told them, ‘No, I heard you always wake up hurt, you don’t wake up right basically.’ That’s why I’m working in the restaurant. I’d rather work in the restaurant than a chicken plant any time,” Oscar said.
Of the 232 students who graduated from McDonald County High last year, 154 of them reported they would be attending college. Just a handful opted to work in one of several chicken plants in the area. That’s in large part due to the determination of teachers who insist their students go to college after graduation.
“We have a little joke in the classroom that is, ‘Are you going to the University of so and so,’ without saying the name of the poultry plant, or are you going to the ‘University of this other plant name’?” said Alive Espinoza, who teaches English as a second language. “I say, ‘It is a good choice, but I think you can do better than that. Your parents are already doing the hard labor. It is up to you to do better’."
But college isn’t an easy option for undocumented students because most university applications and financial aid forms require a social security number.
“We have teachers every year that are broken hearted because they have this student in class that has so much talent and so much ability and now they're going to go work in the poultry industry because they can’t get into college,” said Principal Greg Leach. “And it’s nothing against the poultry industry. It’s just the fact that these kids have so much more potential but they can’t go anywhere with it.”
Teachers here encourage their undocumented students to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals consideration. Applying for DACA status takes some doing, including paying a $465 fee and providing extensive documentation proving residency. Applicants worry they and their family members risk deportation by submitting this data to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But if granted, DACA status allows kids without papers to attend college legally for two years.
Many immigration reform advocates want Congress to pass The DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for many young immigrants.
But the time is now for Oscar, who says he plans to apply for DACA status. He wants to go to college to get training to be a mechanic.
“I’ve been trying to be an optimistic person, like always trying to see the glass half full,” Oscar said. “Right after high school, I will be the first of my family to go to college. That's what motivates me right now to finish high school and everything.”
More from this series: In the Shadows of the Slaughterhouse
This project was reported with assistance from the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s “Immigration in the Heartland” fellowship.