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Twister heals Ala. town fractured over immigration

Tuesday - 5/28/2013, 10:18am  ET

Mobile homes dot the landscape in Kilpatrick, Ala., in this May 15, 2013 image from video. It is an area known to locals as "Little Mexico" for its large population of Hispanic immigrants. Both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking residents say cross-cultural relations have improved in the area since March, when a tornado touchdown sparked a relief effort that helped bridge longstanding gaps between the groups. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

JAY REEVES
Associated Press

KILPATRICK, Ala. (AP) -- For years before a tornado hit, few besides the immigrants who work at nearby poultry plants ventured down the pothole-rutted dirt roads of "Little Mexico."

The community, whose official name is Kilpatrick, comprises a large population of Latin American residents who previously mingled very little with the white, English-speaking natives.

Oddly enough, it was the twister, with its 125 mph destructive winds and home-wrecking fury, that began bringing the two groups together, even as it tore much of what they owned apart.

People began working together clearing away debris and wreckage after the storm without regard to language or culture, and folks suddenly were getting along better. Jacky Clayton, assistant police chief in Crossville, which includes part of Kilpatrick, doesn't know exactly what happened, but he said things seem less tense now.

"Maybe it's just a little more understanding of brotherly love," Clayton said.

Ivan Barrera, of Puebla, Mexico, the 31-year-old owner of a full-service Latin grocery store in the town, noted that for much of the seven years he has lived here, he has felt a certain "neutrality" between the immigrant and native communities. No blatant animosity, but no meaningful connection, either.

"I think things have gotten better since the storm," he said, speaking in Spanish.

The tearing down of cultural walls was a rather remarkable achievement in a state that two years ago passed the toughest anti-immigration law in the nation and is now bracing for the results of a protracted debate in Washington on immigration reform.

Located about 75 miles northeast of Birmingham in DeKalb County, Kilpatrick has drawn hundreds of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American countries who moved to the rural area over the past decade to work in chicken-processing plants.

An estimated 2,000 immigrants live in Kilpatrick. An exact number is hard to nail down given the transience of some of the workers and the fact that many moved here without legal permission.

But their influence is unmistakable: The 600-student elementary school in nearby Crossville that many children from Kilpatrick attend is more than 60 percent Hispanic, unusual in a state where the population is only 4 percent Hispanic.

Driving through the area, it's not hard to see why so many people call it "Little Mexico" or, alternately, "Little Tijuana." Signs in Spanish advertise everything from $1 tacos at the El Taco Unico roadside stand to pastries, pinatas and Mexican spices at a Mexican bakery where Latin music plays quietly. On a main road a mile away, customers come and go from Barrera's grocery store.

On a recent sunny spring afternoon, families strolled down the road to a small neighborhood store while boys played soccer in yards next to bleating goats and clucking chickens. Most of the children spoke Spanish, with a little English sprinkled in.

Rosemarie Chavez is a bilingual native of Texas who moved into the area about 16 years ago when hardly anyone else was around and has most recently taken on the role of unofficial liaison between the immigrants and Alabama natives. She said the Hispanic population grew quickly once landowners began subdividing pastureland and selling acreage and mobile homes to the families who were moving in to take the poultry jobs.

The more the town grew, however, the more it became a target of the anti-immigration sentiment that had begun growing in the South and other parts of the country. For advocates of the tough anti-immigration law passed by Alabama's Republican-dominated Legislature in 2011, Kilpatrick was a prime example of unregulated immigration -- many of the recently arrived workers had come to the United States without legal permission.

The new law allowed police to check immigration status during routine traffic stops and detain those who couldn't produce the right papers. The legislation also required schools to verify students' immigration status.

Police began to make Kilpatrick a focus of frequent traffic stops, and many residents were scared, said Chavez, who is also a community outreach worker for Quality of Life Health Care Services, which provides medical services throughout the area.

Many Hispanics left Alabama in the weeks after Gov. Robert Bentley signed the strict immigration law. They gradually returned, however, as courts gutted the measure's strictest provisions, officials relaxed enforcement, and the public's attention went elsewhere, Chavez said.

Still, their renewed physical presence did not translate into cultural assimilation. Kilpatrick's residents seldom veered far from the route that led to their jobs at the poultry plants and their native neighbors showed little interest in getting to know them.

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