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How immigrants learn English in rural America

Immigrants have long turned to rural America as a source of work, but often struggle because they lack English language skills. That’s a little different in Beardstown, Ill., a town about an hour west of Springfield.

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Every year, more than 200 students take English as a Second Language classes run by Lincoln Land Community College in Beardstown. (WBEZ/Tanveer Ali)

Immigrants have long turned to rural America as a source of work, but often struggle because they lack English language skills.

That’s a little different in Beardstown, Ill., a town about an hour west of Springfield. Beardstown is home to about 6,000 people.

In many ways, it’s like other rural towns – struggling local economies surrounded by cornfields.

But Beardstown is also home to a large pork-processing plant that’s owned by Minnesota-based Cargill, Inc.

Over the past few decades, the plant has legally hired hundreds of immigrants. Most are from Latin America and Africa.

Those employees and the families they bring speak mostly Spanish and French, with minimal English skills. They have changed the fabric of Beardstown.

“I need to learn English to talk to doctors,” Cargill employee Alejandro Lopez said.

And his child’s teachers. And his employers. And many of his Beardstown neighbors.

In the last decade, Beardstown’s Latino population doubled to around 2,000. The influx of Cargill employees has kept the town’s population from shrinking.

Cargill is working to educate its non-English speaking employees, though the company won’t say how much money it invests in it.

Minnesota-based Cargill, Inc. owns a pork processing plant in Beardstown, Ill., which serves as the largest employer in town. (WBEZ/Tanveer Ali)

“Our employee is not a very engaged employee if you can’t talk to them on a daily basis in some form or fashion,” said Steve Pirkle, Cargill’s plant manager.

“It’s about communication,” he said. “Once you get past the application as well as the interview then you get into work instructions, safety instruction.”

Pirkle said improving literacy levels of employees helps them outside the plant too.

“Some of them have families,” he said. “Some of them may have other issues. Health issues. School issues. Need to go to the dentist. It’s about the work-life issues that they may have and being able to communicate in some form or fashion in their life.”

Educating Cargill employees is a community effort. The company gets help from the local public library. Lincoln Land Community College hosts English as a Second Language classes at the plant.

Many of the classes address issues that directly deal with Cargill operations, covering topics such as how to fill out vacation request forms and the meaning of symbols throughout the plant.

About one fourth of the books at Beardstown Houston Memorial Library are in Spanish or French, the two most prominent languages spoken by immigrants there.  (WBEZ/Tanveer Ali)

The public library plays an important helping immigrants improve their English, pursue a GED or navigate the citizenship process.

“We try to stress the importance of getting a library card and checking out books,” said Molly Rice, director of the Beardstown Houston Memorial Library. “We’re trying to get them acclimated to the culture here but also keeping their own culture too. We don’t want to take that away.”

Attendance at the library has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to its outreach efforts. About one fourth of its book collection is not in English.

The library is busiest on weekdays around 3 p.m. when children are let out of school and shifts change at the Cargill plant.

We are pretty tiny but we get used quite a bit,” Rice said.

The library is a source of pride for the community, including second-generation immigrants and immigrants who moved to the town at a very early age.

Ricardo Montoya Picazo works at the library. He came to Beardstown from Mexico as a child. His father worked at Cargill.

“I came into the country, I thought everybody spoke Spanish,” Picazo said. “Spanish was my world.”

Picazo learned English at the library, and is now helping others do the same.

“(It) is not only about access of books but access of information that will help them in the future to learn English,” Picazo said.

Learning English gave Picazo a wider range of options than just joining his father at the plant. He is pursuing a master’s degree and a career in politics.

“Our present generation has evolved,” Picazo said.

Public libraries across the nation have seen an increasing number of users in recent years, an issue that small libraries such as that in Beardstown has had to grapple with while dealing with a shrinking budget.

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