Caroline County deals with a growing, and sometimes illegal, immigrant population

`Invisible' community develops

December 25, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

MARYDEL -- When the Rev. Chris LaBarge first came to this hardscrabble little town that straddles the Mason-Dixon Line, local officials told him there were virtually no Hispanics here.

A decade later, 250 people pack a white frame church every Sunday night to hear "Father Chris" say Mass in Spanish. His Eastern Shore parish offers Latino immigrants their own Sunday school, Bible study, social groups, English classes and computer training.

LaBarge estimates that Caroline County today is home to at least 2,000 Latinos from Guatemala and Mexico. Others say the newcomers - most of whom entered the country illegally - account for nearly 10 percent of Caroline's population of 31,000.

"We have been tracking a notable trend in a community that used to be invisible," said Memo F. Diriker, a Salisbury University economist. "Word-of-mouth spreads about jobs, and they come for the work, trying to escape economic oppression. They are there because of three factors - available jobs, the location close to a lot of employment centers and the cheap cost of living."

Workers are drawn by the abundance of low-skill jobs in poultry and food processing plants, as well as with landscaping and construction companies. As federal officials debate what to do about illegal immigrants, here in Caroline, undocumented workers are becoming an integral part of the economy.

County officials admit they have only a vague idea how many immigrants have settled here, and they are trying to find a better way to count them - which might help Caroline qualify for more aid. The county commissioners are considering a proposal to name a liaison to the Latino community who would help to identify unmet needs.

The county does not have a lot of money to pay for new programs. Average household income is $38,832 - $26,000 less than the statewide average - and the county's entire annual operating budget is $45 million. Officials are wondering how to pay for needed services in a poor rural county, and how to bridge cultural and language barriers in delivering them.

"We are trying to get out ahead on this, and obviously, we need to start with a needs assessment," said County Commissioner John W. "Jack" Cole. "They have a tremendous work ethic, but it is difficult for people who are distrustful of the entire system," Cole said. "We need something like a clearinghouse for services."

The children of immigrants - who are U.S. citizens if they were born in this country - already are getting some county services through the schools.

At Greensboro Elementary, Ruth Young, who heads the English Language Learning program, says about 100 of the school's 600 students are learning English as a second language.

"When I first came here seven or eight years ago, I was hired to teach regular third-grade English," Young said. "But there was so much need for teachers who spoke Spanish, I switched over and we opened this program. We have added about 30 students a year. This year, 40, and we expect it to continue."

In Goldsboro, a new nonprofit health center that gets government funds offers medical services to anyone who needs them, regardless of citizenship. Bilingual staff there and at the county Social Services office can help clients who do not speak English.

While the immigrants can be found in several county communities, Marydel has the largest concentration of Hispanics, mostly Guatemalans. Houses have been converted to apartments, and two crowded, ramshackle trailer parks provide cheap housing in more than 200 mobile homes. The former railroad town, which has withered since the trains stopped running decades ago, is about 15 miles from Denton, the county seat, and about the same distance from Dover, Del.

Estimated figures for last year from the U.S. Census Bureau put Caroline's Hispanic population at 1,277, but county employers, social service providers and others say it is more like 3,000.

The immigrants may be most visible in Marydel, because of their numbers and their involvement with Immaculate Conception Church. Each evening last week, Guatemalans held a traditional Christmas procession - Las Posadas - through Marydel and other communities in northern Caroline, reenacting the Biblical search of Joseph and Mary for "room at the inn."

But while members of the Latino community may be more open about celebrating their culture, they tend to steer clear of census counters. Most entered the country illegally, nearly everyone agrees.

Twenty-eight-year-old Angel, who asked that his full name not be used, says he first came here as a teenager and made good money in the poultry plants before getting homesick and deciding to go home to Guatemala. He returned two years ago and found work with a masonry contractor.

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