Immigrant communities diversify the face of a rural Colorado city
This story is part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.
The bell signals the start of second period. A trio of young women take seats in English class, their attention quickly drifting outside the walls of the high school in Fort Morgan, Colorado, eager to talk about what they’re working toward.
“I want to become an FBI [agent],” says freshman Mariam Mohammed. “It’s my dream.”
On her left, her sister, Mutaas Mohammed, with a clay-colored hijab wrapped around her face and dark purple lipstick, says she wants to study fashion design. The girls’ friend, Isra Mohamud, a senior this year, chimes in: she’s looking at a nursing program at the local community college.
All three arrived at the high school fewer than four years ago, part of a decades-long migration of people originally from East Africa, Central America and Mexico to this small, conservative farming community on Colorado’s eastern plains. The young women are of Somali descent, brought to the United States from refugee camps and cities in Kenya and Ethiopia by their parents in search of community and, more urgently, steady work.
Immigration, refugee resettlement, and the lagging rural economy are among the issues that defined the 2016 presidential election. President Donald Trump’s early executive orders regarding immigration and refugees have made it clear in the early days of his administration that those issues are not going away.
For the students at Fort Morgan High School, these aren’t abstract political ideas or topics on the news. They’re living it. This school, by the nature of its demographics and geographic location, is a place where the rubber meets the road and demonstrates what happens when a rural town rapidly diversifies.
‘Deep cultural roots’
Fort Morgan sits 80 miles northeast of Denver, an agricultural powerhouse along the South Platte River. Three large factories – one for meatpacking, one for mozzarella cheese, one for sugar beets – act as economic pillars in this city of 11,300 people.
“From the highway and from the outside, it looks like just a typical small town, farm town,” says high school english teacher Taylor Jordan, who moved to Fort Morgan a few years ago from suburban Denver.
“But then living here all the deep cultural roots that we have here I think makes it such a special place.”
The city is already minority-majority. In 2010, less than half the population, 48 percent, identified as white alone, not Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The high school is even more diverse. Nearly 70 percent of students at Fort Morgan High are non-white. Morgan County, where Fort Morgan is located, voted in favor of Donald Trump 68 percent. Signs in support of the new president still remain, including a stack of hay bales near the city limits spray-painted with the words “Trump” and “USA” on either side.
In an early morning English as a Second Language class, students hail from some of the world’s most violent and war-torn countries: Somalia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras.
Isra Mohamud arrived in Fort Morgan three years ago after a short stint at a public school in the Denver metro area. She’s a member of the city’s small, but growing East African population. I ask her to describe Fort Morgan to someone who’s never been here.
“It smells kind of bad, to be honest,” Mohamud says. “But I like it. This place has so much diversity because we have this company called Cargill.”
Cargill owns the meatpacking plant in town. The cheese factory here, owned by Denver-based Leprino Foods, has created demand for more milk, which has spurred growth in local dairy farms, which are often staffed by immigrants from Central America milking cows every hour of the day. A plume of exhaust from the Great Western Sugar Cooperative factory, one of the last remaining operational sugar refineries in the Rocky Mountain region, greets drivers as they enter the city from I-76.
For decades, immigrants have flocked to the plentiful, but grueling jobs in Fort Morgan, and they have kept the agriculture and manufacturing economy fully staffed. A watershed moment for the community came in 2006, when federal agents conducted an immigration raid at the Swift meatpacking plant in nearby Greeley, Colorado. A mix of fear and uncertainty drove African and Latino workers to flee, and find work in Fort Morgan, where the meatpacking factory avoided the sting.
The high school
Leaving Ethiopia for the U.S. was hard for Mohamud. She spoke little to no English, and was the only Somali person at her junior high in the Denver area.
“It was so difficult for me,” Mohamud recalls. “I couldn’t understand what people were saying. It was a totally different culture. Different people.”
That was before she moved to Fort Morgan, and began attending one of the most diverse high schools in the state. There were dozens of other Somali students. Plus, students from Central America, eastern Europe, Myanmar and the kids who grew up in town. She still stands out around town because of her hijab, she says, but Fort Morgan has begun to feel like home.
“There is people who are going to stare at you because they’ve never someone wearing a hijab. And they’re wondering, ‘What the hell’s wrong with this person?’” Mohamud says, with a laugh. “But most people, they don’t even care. ‘It’s your culture, it’s your thing.’”
Getting to a point at which a hijab isn’t especially noticeable in this rural community was not easy. When Muslim refugees began moving to Fort Morgan around 2007, some of those who’d lived in town their whole lives felt it was changing too quickly, likening the transition to a covert invasion, rather than a deliberate, transparent integration. Police responded to a few acts of vandalism. Religious disputes at the meatpacking plant flared up. Latino and Somali residents say they still sometimes get nasty looks when they speak a language other than English in public.
“Community-wise I think it was extremely difficult,” says Ben Bauman, the high school’s principal. “There was some backlash of this other culture coming in. And not one or two, but hundreds.”
During the 2016 election, charged political rhetoric sometimes turned into tense moments in Fort Morgan. Teachers stifled a chant among students of “build the wall” at the local middle school. Some students wore Trump t-shirts up at the high school, but school staff insist no major incidents caused problems. English teach Taylor Jordan says it more manifested as a reluctance to talk politics at all, for fear of saying the wrong thing about race or religion or identity.
“Just last week one of the students asked me, ‘Why are people racist?’” Jordan says. “I just try to explain to them that racism happens because people don’t understand each other, or there is one stereotype that is projected, and people haven’t met someone who can break that stereotype.”
Concerns about deportation, restricted avenues to citizenship, and limited travel to and from home countries among immigrant and refugee students have only been exacerbated since president Trump has taken office. Somalia is listed as one of the seven Muslim-majority countries included in the president’s executive order restricting travel, the fate of which is uncertain as it winds its way through the judicial system.
“I think [the students] are all a little nervous,” Jordan says. “I would be if I was in their shoes, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
‘We have to adapt to it’
In the last decade, as Fort Morgan continued its cultural transformation, the community has seen more formal efforts to integrate the various communities that call the city home. Local police have held special meetings with refugee leaders to build trust. There’s a small nonprofit, One Morgan County, specifically designed to convene discussions among the groups. In December, the group hosted clinics with an immigration attorney to explain what to do when approached by a federal agent or police officer. Researchers at Colorado State University are studying the diverse mix of cultures at play.
And while those organized efforts are underway, 16-year-old junior Kyla Carpenter says the high school is the gathering place where members of the various cultures are forced to confront each other. To Carpenter, a Muslim refugee isn’t an abstract idea -- he’s the person next to her in Social Studies. Undocumented students fleeing violence in Central America aren’t just an image on the news, they’re on the volleyball team. While the numbers show the city is diverse, on the ground, outside of the high school, it remains largely segregated, she says.
“I’m going to stay on my side of town and ignore that this is happening,” she says of some of the city’s longtime residents. “I’m not going to talk to them because I don’t have to.”
“Some of them try to avoid the issue of this is happening. Because we go to school with people like this, we have to face it, we have to adapt to it.”
Like many smaller cities that have welcomed new immigrants, the city’s existing institutions have for years acted as landing pads. Fort Morgan’s schools, where 20 percent of the student body is enrolled in English as a Second Language classes, are on the front lines.
“We’ve jumped on the role of infusing cultural diversity into our schools and ten years later I think we’re getting to a point that it’s normal,” says principal Ben Bauman.
While many parts of rural America are losing population as residents head to cities to find jobs, Fort Morgan has held steady, or grown, for years. Immigrants, like Isra Mohamud and her family, helped make that happen. She says she likes living in Fort Morgan, and wants to stay and work, after she finishes high school.
“I want to have a better education,” she says. “I really like it, because there’s nothing that scares me now.”