County Hispanic population on the rise

By Julie Fann
Star Staff

The Hispanic population in the United States continues to grow as more people immigrate to America in search of better jobs and living conditions, and the effect on small rural communities like Carter County is as myriad and complex as the increasingly diverse population.
   Between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic population in Carter County grew by 38 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, while the state Hispanic population increased by just 16.65 percent. The prevalence of jobs in the area of agriculture and the low cost of living are major reasons many choose to settle in East Tennessee.
   Approximately 191 Hispanic people lived in Carter County in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and that number increased to 504 in 2000.
   Though America promises to be a land of opportunity, when Hispanics arrive, they often encounter a very different world with conditions such as joblessness, low wages, prejudice, and language and cultural barriers that can be insurmountable.
   "It's a difficult process; it's extremely difficult for someone to come from a different country to this country and learn the customs and find a doctor, a church. Those things are extremely difficult for anyone who goes into a different country," said Chele Dugger, the county's only instructor of English as a second language for non-natives.
   Hispanics are much more likely than non-Hispanic Whites to be unemployed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In March, 2002, 8.1 percent of Hispanics in the civilian labor force aged 16 and older were unemployed, compared with only 5.1 percent of non-Hispanic Whites. Among Latino groups, 8.4 percent of Mexicans, 9.6 percent of Puerto Ricans, 6.8 percent of Central and South Americans, 6.1 percent of Cubans, and 8.6 percent of other Hispanics were unemployed, numbers that are significantly higher than those for non-Hispanic Whites.
   According to Dugger, Hispanics in Carter County find jobs in construction and agriculture, as well as professional jobs, depending on their level of education. "Some of the women are cleaning houses; many are homemakers and are not employed. It is often the male of the family who comes with a job or gets a job and sometimes later the women will get a job. A lot of it depends upon whether or not they have (proper) paperwork," Dugger said.
   Hispanic workers typically earn less than non-Hispanic White workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among full-time, year-round workers in 2002, 26.3 percent of Hispanics and 53.8 percent of non-Hispanic Whites earned $35,000 or more. Among Latino full-time, year-round workers, Mexicans had the lowest proportion earning $35,000 or more. In addition, the proportion of workers making $50,000 or more was 12.4 percent for Hispanics, compared with 31.8 percent for non-Hispanic Whites. Mexicans had the lowest proportion of workers earning $50,000 or more (10.6 percent).
   Lack of access to health care is another issue Hispanics face if they are not documented U.S. citizens. "If they are here undocumented they can still get TennCare on a temporary basis if they're pregnant or some unforeseen emergency arises," Dugger said. But if pregnancy or state of emergency is not a factor, then those who are not documented live without access to health care.
   Dugger teaches English for the Carter County School System to those who settle here from other countries and also acts as a consultant for the Elizabethton City School System. She said that, in spite of stereotypes that exist nationwide, most who arrive from other nations are welcomed and supported.
   "I've been here in Carter County for 25 years, but I was not born and raised here and it was difficult even for me. I have found that, in the schools, students are extremely accepting and kind and helpful in making those students who come in feel welcome. Teachers also do a good job of helping them learn and being open to their difficulties and struggles," Dugger said.
   Dugger has worked with students who move to Carter County from Mexico, Chile, the Czech Republic, Thailand, the Phillipines, and Argentina. Currently, she works with approximately 15 students who aren't fluent in the English language as well as five students who are transitional, or partially fluent.
   "We follow them for two years after they become fluent. Our big problem right now is with the No Child Left Behind Law. It causes a lot of problems with these kids because they have to take the same TCAPs as other kids and have to pass all the Gateway tests," she said.