Alabama town mirrors US class divide on immigration

Albertville, Alabama (CNN) – There’s one question Sandra Langlois is sick of hearing in job interviews.

“Do you speak Spanish?”

Langlois doesn’t – and doesn’t think she should have to.

At 42, she already speaks two languages. Born in Germany, she moved to Pennsylvania as a child and learned to speak English fluently. She thought that would be enough to get a job in the United States.

Now, as she waits for an interview at the Albertville unemployment office, she’s not sure it will be.

Hispanic immigrants, she says, have transformed the state she’s called home for decades. And the ones who came to the United States illegally, she says, make a tough job market even tougher.

Langlois needs to find work, and fast: Her family is living in a motel after the power company turned out the lights in their trailer. She’s sharing a car and cell phone with her father-in-law.

The Spanish question, she says, has abruptly ended more than one interview. She hopes it won’t throw her out of the running this time, too.

“It’s kind of, really, discrimination,” she says. “If you’re not here legally, then you need to go ahead and go back home. … They need to come over here the right way. Don’t sneak over. Don’t stay here.”

It’s a sentiment that runs deep through some circles of this largely white, working-class town, which made headlines as the epicenter of Alabama’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. Five years later, people in Albertville are still split over the changes they’ve seen – and what they think should happen next.

So is the country.

A CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll (PDF) released this week reveals deep divides across the United States on immigration.

Working-class whites – a group some analysts say could play a decisive role in the presidential election – are far more likely than others to say immigrants who arrived illegally should be deported. More than half (55%) say that’s something the government should attempt, compared with 27% of white college grads.

Those statistics don’t surprise Glenda Barnes. The 70-year-old Albertville resident says she moved out of her neighborhood when immigrants started moving in. Her street started to go downhill, she says, as people crammed cars onto lawns and stopped taking care of homes.

“If you lived here, you’d understand,” she says. “Our town was so neat, a nice little town. Now it’s like we don’t care, and everything’s falling in.”

Rachel Zavaleta isn’t surprised by the numbers either. The 29-year-old still remembers what people shouted at her on the playground when she came to Albertville with her family nearly 20 years ago: Go back to Mexico.

Albertville bills itself as "the Fire Hydrant Capital of the World," but it's better known for its poultry processing plants.

A changing landscape

Debates about deporting immigrants who came here illegally aren’t just political talking points in Albertville; they’re personal.

This is a city where officials tried hard to force them out, in a state where lawmakers passed the toughest law in the country aimed at doing the same thing.

Five years later, even people who don’t see eye to eye on immigration can agree on one thing: It didn’t work.

Albertville proudly bills itself as “the Fire Hydrant Capital of the World,” for the Mueller factory that’s manufactured millions there. But across the state, it’s better known for another industry: poultry processing plants, which employ thousands of workers – many of them immigrants.

More than a quarter of the town’s roughly 22,000 residents are Hispanic. And Alabama’s 2011 immigration law scared many people who’d found jobs in the area.

Terrified they’d be rounded up and deported, they abandoned homes, pulled their kids out of school and moved to other states. Neighborhoods were left nearly empty. Shopping districts became ghost towns.

But in 2012, a federal appeals court gutted much of the law, ruling that parts of it were unconstitutional, including a requirement that public schools determine the immigration status of students and parents.

Albertville by the numbers


Hispanic population (29.8%)

White, non-Latino population (66.9%)

Foreign-born population (17.7%)

High school graduate or higher

Bachelor’s degree or higher

Unemployment rate (Marshall County)

  • Sources: US Census Bureau estimates, Alabama Department of Labor

    Now, Albertville’s Latino immigrant population is thriving once again. A growing number of Haitian refugees, recruited by chicken plants in recent years, have moved to the city, too.

    The large Catholic church where thousands pray in Spanish every Sunday just paid off its new $1.2 million building, thanks to donations from the congregation.

    Eateries serving tacos and tamales are easier to find in some parts of the city than restaurants offering grits or fried catfish.

    The relationships between residents – and the approaches local leaders take – have changed.

    But it doesn’t take long to see that tensions are still simmering.

    Stop by the basketball court where Mexican workers are shooting hoops, and you’ll hear how afraid they are that Donald Trump might be president, and what it was like a few years back when people couldn’t get water or electricity in their homes unless they could prove they were here legally.

    Sit for a moment in the Little League stands nearby, and a woman flipping through a coupon book as she leans back in a lawn chair will tell you how immigrants should stop speaking Spanish and sucking benefits from the system.

    Step into a shopping mall off the busy four-lane highway through town, and you’ll see immigrants searching for the right words in an English class as they talk with their teacher about what foods to eat on American holidays and how fast the cashiers speak at Walmart.

    Cross the parking lot to visit the unemployment office, and you’ll hear some people say the influx of immigrants gave the region’s economy a boost, while others grumble it cost them their jobs.

    "I think they should have to learn to speak like we do," says a woman who didn't want to be identified.

    ‘There’s plenty of jobs’

    Langlois runs her fingers through her hair as she scans the bulletin board at the unemployment office, looking for a lead.

    Could she be a dishwasher or a welder? Will she go back to working at a chicken plant? Is there any other choice?

    As an immigrant herself, Langlois says she’s had to follow strict rules and make sure her documents are in order when she applies for jobs. And she resents immigrants who came to the United States illegally for finding ways to skirt the system.

    Programming Note

  • White, Working Class & Worried is a CNN partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation - an extensive survey of white, working class Americans and voters. Watch Anderson Cooper 360 and for reports throughout the week.

    “It’s just not fair,” she says. “It’s like they’re getting special treatment.”

    The CNN/KFF poll found that working-class whites were significantly more likely than other groups to say illegal immigration had directly affected them.

    More than a quarter (27%) say their family has been negatively affected by undocumented immigrants taking jobs in their community, and among this group, 8 in 10 want the government to deport all undocumented immigrants.

    The trend is even stronger in the South.

    Working-class whites in this part of the United States are about twice as likely as those in other regions to say they’ve been affected (40% vs. 18% to 22% in other regions).

    One possible explanation: The South is where demographers say they’ve seen the greatest growth in foreign-born and Hispanic populations in recent years.

    But not everyone thinks immigration in the area hurts a shot at getting a job.

    “There’s plenty of jobs. You’ve just got to want to do it,” Ronnie Wise says as he waits for an interview after filling out an application at the unemployment office. “A lot of people don’t want to, and they (immigrants) will. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have any chicken plants here.”

    If he meets immigrants who need work, Wise says he knows just what he’ll do.

    Help them.

    Belt buckles inside a display case at an Albertville gift shop show the city's changing demographics.

    ‘There are so many of us’

    Two belt buckles sit side by side in a glass display case at a gift shop on Main Street. One is a Confederate battle flag. The other says “Hecho en Mexico” – Made in Mexico.

    A Mexican family searches for shoes in the back of the store. An American woman circles the store and ends up at the cash register with an ashtray and a bottle of perfume called Love.

    As she works the front counter at the Gift on Main/El Regalo, Rachel Zavaleta says it’s great to see customers from different backgrounds shopping at the store.

    Times have changed, she says, since the city and state tried to push out immigrants.

    “Sometimes, you still get a dirty look when you go somewhere. But they don’t do it as much, probably because they’d have to be giving dirty looks all day, since there are so many of us,” she says.

    But Trump’s campaign is already rekindling friction, she says, in an area where he is heavily favored to win.

    “You hear people talk, even your friends or people you know, about getting rid of immigrants. They’re telling that to us, not realizing that we’re Hispanic,” she says. “It doesn’t click in their heads how it would be affecting us.”

    A Hispanic mayor?

    Fox News anchors rattle off headlines on TV as Joe Lusk gets ready to dig into his breakfast. After a waitress places his plate on the table, he bows his head in prayer.

    The 59-year-old fence company owner is a lifelong Albertville resident. And he often stops to eat at this family-run restaurant, where a sign hanging by the front door pays tribute to “Southern living, where the tea is sweet, our words are long, the days are warm and our faith is strong.”

    Lately, he says, the topic of immigration has been coming up more often at the breakfast table.

    Lusk sees the growing presence of immigrants in Albertville as a clash of cultures that’s gradually gotten worse.

    “There’s no place,” he says, “to really be away from them anymore.”

    There’s no doubt that most immigrants work hard and mean well, he says.

    But Lusk sees immigrants as a burden. So do nearly half (47%) of the white, working-class people polled, compared with 20% of white college grads.

    He says immigrants are draining the school and health care systems, and that some of them have brought crime to the city.

    Those who came illegally should be sent back, he says, but they probably never will be – given how much of a financial interest many companies have in keeping them around.

    “If they legalize,” he says, “we’ll probably have a Hispanic mayor in 10 years.”

    The Albertville Museum displays major moments in the city's history, but so far the exhibits haven't mentioned immigration.

    ‘Let’s move forward’

    Just a few blocks from the center of Albertville, a historical marker in front of the city’s museum talks about migration. But it’s referring to people who moved to this mountain town from Georgia and Tennessee in the 1800s.

    It wasn’t until about 30 years ago, museum board member Danny Maltbie says, that immigrants from other countries started trickling in.

    Maltbie spends a lot of time digging up information about Albertville’s history. Visit the retired automotive plant electrician while he’s volunteering at the museum and he’ll tell you about devastating tornadoes that ripped off roofs and forced the city to rebuild – twice.

    He’ll tell you that the railroad rumbling through town changed everything, bringing fertilizer for the first time and giving farmers the chance to grow crops in the tough mountain soil. He’ll tell you that the arrival of the chicken plants decades ago boosted the economy and eventually brought thousands of immigrants here.

    And he’ll tell you how happy he was to give a recent tour of the town cemetery to a class of high school students learning to speak English.

    “I thought that was a very good thing that those kids came to see our museum and learn about our history,” he says.

    Now, he says, it’s their history, too.

    “They’re here,” he says. “Let’s accept them. Let’s move forward.”

    Local legend has it that signs near the US-Mexico border once informed immigrants that jobs were waiting for them in Albertville. Whether that’s how they ended up here, there’s no doubt they left their mark on the city once they arrived.

    The museum’s volunteer board has debated how to deal with the influx. Inside the one-room museum, there are displays about the town’s founder, its Main Street and its small African-American population. But immigration is a topic that hasn’t yet been touched on the museum’s walls.

    It’s a sensitive issue, museum board member Glenda Wooten says, and they’re still trying to sort out the right wording.

    This month, volunteers added a new entry to the official timeline they hand out to visitors:

    “1992: First Hispanics moved to Albertville from Mexico to work in the chicken plants. The children were enrolled in the school system, speaking no English and local administrators and teachers did not speak Spanish. Soon, Albertville City Schools’ enrollment for Mexicans/Hispanic students was one of the largest in the state.”

    About 40% of students at Albertville High School are Hispanic. The principal says diversity prepares kids for the real world.

    ‘Diversity is a strength’

    About 40% of Albertville High School’s more than 1,300 students are Hispanic, Principal Deidra Robinson says.

    Students from different backgrounds didn’t used to mingle much, she says, but now they stand shoulder to shoulder on the football field and sit together in the cafeteria.

    “They just grew up together,” she says.

    And even when tension in the community has boiled over, she says, officials worked hard to keep it out of the schools.

    “We don’t let immigration or the diversity of our school be a barrier to our success,” she says. “We see it as part of our success. … It’s helping prepare our students for the real world.”

    A majority (60%) of working-class whites in the CNN/KFF poll say increasing diversity is enriching American culture. But 33% view diversity as a threat, and 38% say increasing diversity is harmful because “some people feel like they no longer belong.”

    Robinson says teachers in Albertville make sure everyone has a place.

    The school system has programs dedicated to helping newcomers who are still learning English, she says, and most immigrants who need the classes are quick learners.

    There’s one figure Robinson says she frequently mentions to skeptical parents and community members as she fights the misconception that large amounts of school resources are being spent on immigrants.

    Only about 10% of her students are still learning English, she says.

    “When somebody asks a question, they try to make it about color. I just go to turning it around. … Most of them are actually proficient in both languages,” she says. “That’s a comfort to some people.”

    ‘I believe in the rule of law’

    Chuck Ellis thinks of the way his 11-year-old daughter, Marli, wakes up in the morning.

    She’s full of joy when she gets out of bed, he says, knowing things will turn out OK no matter what happens during her school day. But Ellis knows dangers could be lurking.

    That fear takes hold every time he thinks of the man Marli is named for: his brother-in-law, Marlin Strange, who was shot dead 17 years ago. A Mexican immigrant charged in the slaying is on the FBI’s list of most wanted fugitives.

    Illegal immigration, Ellis says, brought more drugs, crime and prostitution to Albertville. Houses were overrun, with people cramming into buildings and sleeping in shifts.

    “It became crazy how many problems we ran into,” says Ellis, a state trooper who was on the Albertville City Council from 2008 to 2012.

    “I’m not racist,” Ellis says. “I believe in the rule of law.”

    While in office, Ellis made fighting illegal immigration a priority. Public safety, he says, was his aim.

    It’s a concern for many Americans when they talk about immigration. About half (49%) of white working-class Americans think Latin American immigrants increase crime in communities, according to the CNN/KFF poll. That’s higher than other groups polled; among white college grads the number is 32%.

    Along with the city’s then-mayor, Ellis supported ordinances that made English the official language, booted taco trucks from operating on Main Street, limited the number of people who could live inside a home and ordered store signs to include English translations.

    And he invited someone to Albertville to help the city take more substantive measures: Kris Kobach, a prominent conservative attorney who made a name for himself helping governments across the country craft laws to crack down on illegal immigration.

    In the end, the city decided not to hire Kobach. But Alabama legislators did; he was one of the primary architects of the state’s immigration law. And Ellis is proud of inviting him to Albertville. He still has a copy of a newspaper front page that shows him shaking Kobach’s hand.

    Ellis isn’t on the City Council anymore; he lost his bid for re-election in 2012. But he’s considering another run for county sheriff (he lost his bid to unseat the incumbent in 2014). Rounding up millions of immigrants who entered the United States illegally and deporting them isn’t feasible, he says. But more needs to be known about who’s already here.

    “The big thing is the vetting process, making sure that people have done the right things, that people don’t have illnesses, that people aren’t bad people,” he says, “because we’ve got enough bad people in the country without letting in more.”

    Freddy and Nancy Salazar relax at home with son Aydan, 2. "There is no racism between children," Freddy Salazar says.

    ‘I’m not stealing anyone’s job’

    Nancy Salazar says she’ll never shake how it felt to live in Albertville when city and state leaders took aim at illegal immigration. Even though she was born in the United States, Salazar says she felt the glaring heat of racism then. And sometimes, she still does.

    Hard-working immigrants are the bedrock of Albertville’s economy, she says, and it’s unfair to blame them for crime in the city or anywhere else.

    “We are not what they think,” she says. “They are just outraged Hispanics have something.”

    In English, Salazar speaks with the smooth lilt of a Southern belle. And in Spanish, her words slice through the air with the sharp precision of a native speaker.

    The 30-year-old preschool teacher, who was born in Florida to parents who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, sees the importance of keeping traditions alive.

    On the wall of her living room, her high school senior picture shows her wearing the silver dangly earrings she’d put on for cheerleading practice; she’s still embarrassed she forgot to wear pearls that day.

    Nearby, she keeps a large Virgin of Guadalupe figure standing next to a big-screen TV.

    Her husband, Freddy, who was born in Mexico, says he’s worked hard in difficult conditions to become a supervisor at a nearby poultry plant. His fingers are so swollen from his years on the job that he struggled to get a ring on his finger when the couple recently renewed their marriage vows.

    “The racists are the ones who don’t know the work that we do. They judge without knowing. … There’s never going to be an American doing the work I do. I’m not stealing anyone’s job,” he says. “There simply is work.”

    Fruits and veggies are plentiful at the Albertville Farmers Market. One vendor says immigrants work hard harvesting crops.

    ‘An invaluable resource’

    Monte Weldon walks over to a giant Scrabble board on the ground just a few steps from her stall at the Albertville Farmers Market and spells out T-O-M-A-T-O.

    It’s one of many crops Americans wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy, she says, without immigrant labor.

    “They get a bad rap, but you know what, a lot of people would go hungry if they weren’t there,” she says. “They’re an invaluable resource.”

    As she sells tomatoes, okra and black-eyed peas, Weldon says she usually tries to steer clear of arguments over immigration. It’s one of those issues where people never seem willing to listen or change their minds.

    Instead, she focuses on her children.

    “I taught my kids to understand about different people, different ways to believe. I raised my children in church,” she said. “We’re not God. It’s not our place to judge.”

    The color of your skin doesn’t matter, she says, and everyone’s blood is red.

    ‘We’re a community’

    “How are we all going to live together here?”

    That’s the question the exasperated publisher of a local newspaper asked back in 2009 at a town meeting as residents and local leaders sparred over immigration.

    Back then, it seemed like the fury might never die down.

    Now, while national debate over immigration rages, many in this city have settled for a reluctant truce. Some hope they’ll have another shot at getting their way. And others wonder if they’re experiencing the uneasy calm that comes before a storm they won’t be able to stop.

    Lindsey Lyons led Albertville’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration and trumpeted the state’s law on national media. As mayor, he kept a US Border Patrol baseball cap on display in his City Hall office.

    Lyons, who lost his post in 2012, declined to comment for this story. When he spoke with CNN in 2011, he said he had run for office because he was tired of the DUIs, drug trafficking and gang activity that he saw immigrants bringing to Albertville.

    “We have a right and moral responsibility,” he said, “to protect our citizens and our quality of life.”

    Tracy Honea, who ousted Lyons and just won re-election, says when it comes to immigration, he’s doing his best to play the hand he was dealt.

    “I truly believe folks need to be legal,” he says, “but it’s out of our control on a national level.”

    Honea says he tries to take a positive approach as mayor.

    “We’ve worked really hard at trying to create an atmosphere that we’re a community, and it’s a growing community,” he says.

    On his office wall, Honea keeps a framed photo of Ronald Reagan riding a white horse that he was thrilled to win at a silent auction. Beneath the photo is a quote from the former US President’s 1985 State of the Union address:

    “Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a chosen few; it is the universal right of all God’s children.”

    Earlier this year, a class of high school students learning English visited City Hall.

    Honea fielded questions from them inside the City Council’s chambers. And in a class photo outside, he stood behind them, smiling.