Originally published by Mother Jones
The transformation from fowl to meat begins with carbon dioxide. The gas knocks the turkeys out; a blade finishes the job. It’s all surprisingly clean, down to the vacuums that suck out their lungs. Stripped of organs and feathers, the line of identical denuded carcasses splashes into a cooling bath.
The work is monotonous, but the workers are markedly diverse. They hail from Brazil, China, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, India, Nepal, South Korea, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, and the Micronesian archipelago of Chuuk. But most of the 1,200 employees are Karen, members of an ethnic group from Myanmar (historically known as Burma) whose families came to the United States as refugees. Their presence in Huron, South Dakota, 8,000 miles from their homeland, is an accident of history that has revived a dying city.
Just before the turkey plant opened in 2005, about 97 percent of kids in Huron schools were white. Today, just over a third of kindergartners and first graders are white. In 2018, the Huron area took in more people from abroad and Puerto Rico, as a share of its 18,800-strong population, than any other place in the United States. In less than 15 years, the community has gone through a demographic transformation that usually takes generations.
This is the story of how Huron—the only sizable town in Beadle County, which Donald Trump carried by 37 points in 2016—became not only a magnet for immigrants but a place where they are celebrated. It’s the story of how the deepening divide over immigration can break down when newcomers are neighbors, not abstractions—and how a small town in a red state embraced change when the alternative was decline and decay.
It’s also a complicated story. More than half of frontline meatpackers are immigrants, according to a Center for Economic and Policy Research analysis, and roughly 80 percent are people of color. Relatively few US-born white people take notoriously grueling jobs in an industry where the average wage is about $14 an hour. For hundreds of first-generation Karen Americans, whose job prospects were often limited by not speaking English, the turkey plant was the best option available. It was that reality that made Huron’s recovery possible.
But its success was neither immediate nor inevitable: The first Karen (kuh-REN) refugees were greeted with wariness, sometimes hostility. But city leaders were determined to overcome it. Immigrants and their supporters spoke to churches and clubs to explain how Karen people had been forced out of their homeland. They patiently answered questions, even the ones about whether the newcomers would eat their neighbors’ dogs. The superintendent restructured the school system to make segregation impossible. Huron’s experience provides lessons for the nation, although most Huronites are happy to stay out of the spotlight.
That reticence was on display in November 2018, when President Trump pardoned two Thanksgiving turkeys, named Peas and Carrots. They’d come from Dakota Provisions, whose chairperson stood alongside the president in the Rose Garden. “Love South Dakota,” Trump said about the state where a crowd at one of his appearances had recently chanted “Build the wall!”
No one mentioned the plants where the rescued turkeys had nearly met their end, or the immigrants who would have slaughtered and processed them. Huron, a town that quietly undercuts so much of the narrative about immigration, was invisible.
Until suddenly it wasn’t. Two months after I visited in January, Huron made news as South Dakota’s first COVID-19 hotspot. As the virus spread through the Dakota Provisions workforce and the local Karen population, it laid bare the inequities that had always lurked behind Huron’s immigrant-led revival.
Huron’s claims to fame are the state fair it hosts each September and the world’s largest pheasant sculpture (28 feet high, made from 22 tons of steel and fiberglass). Local heroes include Cheryl Ladd, who went on to play one of Charlie’s Angels, and Hubert Humphrey, who worked at his dad’s drug store on Huron’s main drag before becoming a Minnesota senator and vice president. But Huron is not white Americana in amber: Alongside the old mom-and-pop standbys are new Asian and Latino churches, restaurants, and grocery stores providing a new sense of vitality.
Superintendent Terry Nebelsick decided that Huron wasn’t going to be a place with “poor sections and rich sections.” Nebelsick says he was guided by “agape” love, a Greek term for the universal and unconditional devotion modeled by Jesus. In 2011, he and his staff arrived at a radical solution: They would replace the four elementary schools with three new schools. One would serve all of Huron’s kindergartners and first graders, another would cover second and third grades, and the last would be fourth and fifth. Instead of starting out segregated, kids in Huron would grow up in the same schools.
Thanks to the new immigrants, the number of babies born each year in Beadle County nearly doubled between 2005 and 2015. To accommodate the growing student body, Huron schools have added about 115 employees. The elementary school band and orchestra have grown from about 25 to more than 100, while the soccer team, whose players are predominantly Latino and Karen, nearly won a state championship. “The legacy of Huron is that if South Dakota is going to prosper—if its cities are going to be here for the next century—we’re not gonna look like we did 100 years ago,” Nebelsick said. “We’re gonna look like the world.”
As Huron became known for its immigrant population, opposing crowds at high school games would yell, “You’re from Huron.” It was meant as an insult, but the town’s kids came up with a chant of their own: “We are Huron!” “I think people come to Huron and say, ‘Look at the diversity,’” Willemssen said. “I don’t see the diversity as much anymore. I just see our kids.”
Two of her students took me on a tour of the middle school. We stopped in on a girls’ choir class. After learning that I was there to write about immigration, the teacher asked her students born outside Huron to share where they were from. The first responses—Illinois, Florida, New Jersey—weren’t what she was looking for. “Okay, that’s very cool,” she said. “Internationally, where do we come from?” Thailand. Cambodia. Malaysia. Vietnam. “We’re quite a melting pot,” she said. Then the girls launched into a tune. “Now let us all sing together,” they sang, “of peace, peace, peace on earth.”
No place, of course, is a blissful chorus. Just before I got to Huron, two Karen residents, ages 17 and 21, were arrested for allegedly shooting at (and missing) a police officer. A white Huron man responded to the news on Facebook by writing about immigrants, “GET THEM OUTTA OUR STATE AND COUNTRY.” But on a platform not known for moderation and restraint, the vast majority of commenters made no mention of the suspects’ ethnicity. Then-Mayor Aylward said none of the people who called him about the shooting brought up immigration.
I’d come to Huron in January to observe its 10th annual celebration of the Karen New Year. Several hundred people, mostly Karen, attended a ceremony that felt like a cross between a pageant and a civics lesson, with troupes of boys and girls performing Karen dances and songs interspersed with upbeat speeches from Soe and Aylward.
Smoky, who, like the mayor, was wearing a Karen tunic, struck a somber tone that irked some Karen people in the audience. He said God had called on him to discuss two emerging problems in the Karen community: drugs and suicide. He made clear that the issues weren’t unique to Karen people, but he worried that parents weren’t spotting the signs of drug dealing and weren’t taking advantage of mental health services. A Karen worker at Dakota Provisions, who requested anonymity, later told me that he felt it painted his community with an overly broad brush. The same things don’t get said when a white person does something wrong, he explained.
A banquet of Karen samosas and noodles restored the mood. The food was prepared with the white attendees’ spice-averse palates in mind, but there were also McDonald’s burgers stacked on the tables just in case. Smoky had introduced me to the crowd during his speech, and an older white woman stopped by to chat. She intimated that she’d been opposed to the immigration at first but had eventually come around to it. She left before I had a chance to ask why.