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Foreign relatives of workers in Beardstown, Ill., help town thrive

Faranak Miraftab
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L. Brian Stauffer

Faranak Miraftab, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois, is documenting the intimate economic connections between Beardstown, Ill., and the home villages of immigrants who work in the town.

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1/23/2012 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568; rhodes8@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On Fridays, when Cargill issues paychecks to workers at its Beardstown, Ill., meatpacking plant, people line up at the post office and grocery stores to send funds to relatives in Congo, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Senegal or Togo. Such scenes make it easy to see how this corporation is helping support families and communities in poorer parts of the world. What’s not as easily seen is the many ways those distant families and communities are supporting Cargill, according to a study published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.

The study, “Faraway Intimate Development: Global Restructuring of Social Reproduction,” was written by Faranak Miraftab, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois. It’s part of her continuing research for a book she’s writing for an Indiana University Press series called Global Framing.

“I see this as the responsibility of critical scholarship: to make these global connections much more tangible for the everyday layperson, to see that there is not a one-way road,” Miraftab said. “We are not only contributing to the development of Mexican and African villages; Mexican and African villages are subsidizing and contributing to the development of our communities here.”

Their contribution comes in the form of what Miraftab calls “social reproduction” – a term she expands beyond biological reproduction and child care to include the reproduction of place, cultural identity, tradition and pride.

Cargill employs hundreds of immigrant workers, some enticed by the corporation’s transnational recruitment teams, searching for legal immigrants; others persuaded by relatives already working for Cargill, which pays a bonus to employees who bring on new hires. The African workers typically hold diversity visas and college degrees – Miraftab met engineers, professors, a lawyer and a veterinarian among the laborers at the meatpacking plant. But like other immigrants, these workers moved to the U.S. specifically for jobs. Many return to their countries of origin when they’re no longer able to perform such demanding physical work.

“They come here to do the industrial labor, but they leave the social reproduction of the next generation of immigrant labor force to their families, neighbors, friends and a whole network of hospitals and schools back home,” Miraftab said. “Both the beginning and end of the cycle, from the time you are born until you reach an economically active age, and then after you are frail and old or injured in a very hazardous job like Cargill – the beginning and end of this life cycle are kind of outsourced to communities of origin.”

Her field research in Lomé, Togo, and Tejaro, Mexico, has documented tangible benefits funded by the remittances some Cargill workers send home each week. Around Beardstown – one of the shinier spots on the Rust Belt that encircles most small, Midwestern towns – Miraftab found evidence of the material wealth the pork-processing workers share with Beardstown natives. Unlike other rural communities that have become ghost towns, Beardstown has a healthy housing market, an ample stock of rental housing refurbished by Mexican immigrants, a viable downtown, and a new public school building and library.

Her study also documents intangible benefits for both laborers and the native-born citizens of Beardstown – an erstwhile all-white “sundown” town where, at one time, minorities were allowed only during daylight business hours.

Churches have added Spanish-language services, Mexican holidays and Africa Day are celebrated in city parks and the town square, and the public school system has adopted a dual-language program that provides half of all instruction in English and half in Spanish for all students. Several youth soccer teams started by immigrants now seem to bring all the various Beardstown cultures together.

“The good part of the story is how this town is changing,” Miraftab said. “While there was no room for diverse populations in this town, today the new generation of Beardstown residents learns to speak in a different language at school and make friends with children from different cultures. There is, in that sense, some hope for the future.

“But you have to see both sides,” Miraftab said. “The cost is being paid by families that are left behind, children that have been deprived of their moms and dads.”

Miraftab believes her research is especially relevant in today’s political climate. “In the environment of immigration policy debates that are happening, it is very important for people to know that if you want to shoo away the immigrants, there will be a devastating economic impact on small towns that have been losing their

native-born population but are revitalized by the new immigrants. Their development is dependent on these migrant workers.”

Editor's note: To contact Faranak Miraftab, call 217-333-3890; email  faranak@illinois.edu.
  The paper is available from the U. of I. News Bureau.

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