NOEL, Mo. — In the far southwest corner of Missouri, refugees may be putting food on your dinner table.
Abdulkadir Abdullahi, a native of Somalia who came to the United States in 2009, estimated that 400 to 500 Somalis, along with some 60 to 70 Sudanese — many of them refugees — now live in the town of Noel, where U.S. Census workers counted a bit more than 1,800 residents in the 2010 Census. He makes a living as an interpreter between the residents and various community groups.
Nearly everyone works for one employer: a chicken processing facility that Tyson Foods (TSN) operates. It sits across the Elk River from downtown, and starting about 10 years ago, the plant’s relatively high starting wages and promises of steady work changed the town’s demographics.
“The companies who produce food, like chicken, throughout the year they don’t have layoffs,” Abdullahi said, explaining Noel’s main appeal to the newcomers.
While rural America often is overwhelmingly white, in the past decade the meatpacking industry has attracted an influx of refugees to select small towns. Along with Noel, sizable Somali communities can be found in places like Liberal, Kan.; Lexington, Neb.; and Fort Morgan, Colo.
On Thursday morning, inside a two-bedroom apartment a block from Main Street, 3-year-old Bedel Kayd and his 1-year-old brother Saadiq sat quietly while finishing a bag of cheese puffs. With Abdullahi acting as translator, their mother, Mun Omer — a Somalian who arrived in the United States in October — said she initially thought President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants or visa holders from seven countries — Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days and refugees for 120 days meant refugees like her would have to return to their home countries.
Omer said she was relieved, to a degree, to learn that her initial fear wasn’t true. But the reality still doesn’t bode well for her father, who is trying to come to America.
Noel’s Main Street is home to a fairly inconspicuous mosque that Abdullahi said opened in 2009. Purple curtains hang over the storefront windows.
Sometimes it briefly houses new arrivals to town.
Next door is the African Grocery Store that opened in 2010, which offers goods like colorful head scarves and rugs in addition to specialty foods.
Noel’s demographic shift can be seen in local schools. In 2013, KBIA-FM, Columbia, Mo., reported that the 401 students at Noel Elementary School spoke 11 languages, and 88% qualified for free or reduced-price lunch — up from six languages and 49% in 2008.
In October 2011, about 130 Somali workers briefly walked off the job during a dispute over prayer time, The Joplin Globe reported. Observant Muslims pray five times a day.
At the time, workers said management changes left them unable to take rotated breaks. Tyson said its religious accommodation policies hadn’t changed and that the matter “was rooted in language differences.”
[Not true USA Today. They claimed a policy change left them unable to take paid Islamic prayer breaks so they walked out.]
Lafley, the mayor, voiced frustration with Somali residents, saying they generally keep to themselves and have failed to assimilate, unlike the Hispanics.
The refugees “want to practice their Sharia law here, and that’s one thing the city won’t tolerate,” he said. Sharia law refers to the set of principles that direct the moral and religious lives of Muslims.
Asked to explain his views, Lafley said men in the community don’t treat women well.
Lydia Kaume, a nutrition specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said driver’s education was found to be a need. Accidents were being attributed to new arrivals’ lack of knowledge about the rules of the road.
“It’s an issue of not knowing what the expectations are,” Kaume said generally of the community’s challenges.
Several years ago, tires were slashed on more than a dozen of Somalis’ cars, KBIA-FM reported. More recently, three individuals are facing charges after a Somali woman said they yelled at her and used racial slurs before assaulting her at a city park in October, The Globe reported.
Lafley said the town doesn’t have enough housing for the newcomers. So Somali residents live in commercial buildings or with numerous unrelated individuals in a single home, both in violation of city ordinance.
“A lot of people aren’t happy because their little town is turned into a third-world country,” he said.
He acknowledged the feeling of alienation likely goes both ways.
“When they get together on Main Street to go to the mosque, it kind of intimidates some people,” he said. “You get a bunch of white people milling around, and it probably intimidates them.”
Asked if Trump’s executive order could affect Tyson’s ability to staff its Noel plant, officials referred a reporter to the North American Meat Institute. In a statement, the trade group said it hopes the Trump administration “will give careful consideration to the ramifications policy changes like these can have on our businesses and on foreign born workers who are eager to build new lives in America through the jobs our companies can offer.”
“Workforce needs are a constant challenge in our line of work, but we don’t foresee any negative impact on chicken production in the near future from this,” said Tom Super, vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council.
Immigration expert Ira Mehlman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) said that while extended family chain migration is a “general bad policy,” he said the booming Somali and Sudanese populations in Noel were most likely due to Tyson Foods’ chicken-processing plant in the town.
The Tyson factory provides about 1,600 jobs to Noel residents. The influx in refugees to the region has, however, cramped the local labor market.
“These meat-packing companies undermine the union jobs,” Mehlman told Breitbart Texas. “They’ve brought in illegal aliens and refugees, but essentially, they’ve used this to replace their unionized workforce. It’s a labor subsidy for the employers.”
“There’s a myth that illegal aliens are a source of cheap labor,” Mehlman continued. “It’s cheap only to the direct employer. The rest of us have to pay for healthcare, education, and other social services.”
Mehlman told Breitbart Texas that in areas similar to Noel, where corporate plants employ the majority of small town population, it is the companies that incentivize chain migration policies; which already allow for spouses and unmarried children to come to the U.S.
“In other places, it has been the employers that has created this phenomenon,” Mehlman said. “They prefer these foreign workers over unionized employees.”
Immigration groups like FAIR and NumbersUSA have been pushing President Trump’s administration to reform chain migration policy, citing that it only leads to more illegal immigration.
Your town could be next.