Kansas ranks below the nation as a whole for Hispanic population, with 11.2% of Kansans being of Hispanic ethnicity while the nation as a whole has 17%.
In western Kansas, however, where packing plants, feedlots and dairies are prevalent, Hispanics are in the majority, in towns like Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal.
The Kansas Hispanic Council says there are no state statistics on how many of the 319,442 Hispanics who call Kansas home have legal status, or how many are currently recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, giving them protection from deportation and allowing them to work legally. Rep. Roger Marshall, a Republican who represents the 1st Congressional District, says about 3,000 young people in his district were childhood arrivals, and more than 2,500 are DACA recipients. (See "Dodge City's Ernestor De La Rosa works, waits and hopes for the best," tomorrow at KansasFarmer.com.)
Part of Dodge City’s Hispanic population is several generations old, thanks to the workers who arrived with the cattle drives and railroad crews of the late 1800s and early 1900s. But it was the arrival of the big packing plants — Cargill and National Beef — in the early 1980s that caused the population to swell to the current majority levels.
Thousands of Hispanic workers are employed at one of those two plants — which still dominate the local economy — or in the nearby feedlots, where cattle are fattened.
About a quarter of all the beef consumed anywhere in the United States comes through the feedlots and packing plants in Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal. Almost all the workers are immigrants: either from Mexico, Central America, South America, Somalia or Southeast Asia.
Pay is good: $15.50 an hour for a starting position at Cargill, plus medical and 401(k) benefits. The cost of living in western Kansas is low. But the work is hard and unpleasant. Finding “native-born” Americans willing to do it is difficult.
In Dodge City, the school population is as high as 70% to 80% Hispanic. Shop signs are as common in Spanish as they are in English. Several years ago, with the financial help of longtime western Kansas business leader Steve Irsik, dual-language 4-H clubs were launched in Ford, Finney and Seward counties, and there are now dozens of clubs throughout western Kansas.
Irsik said at the time that he felt getting immigrant children and their parents involved in 4-H was important to the future of the region because of the important role it plays in the culture of the western Kansas. He said he sees the future leaders of the region and the state in those children, and he wanted to help them grow up with an understanding of the value of community service.