Small Towns Grapple with Diseased Immigrants

Sunday, 09 Dec 2007 01:28 PM

By Tom Squitieri

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The incidence of a Somali meat packer in Kansas who died from tuberculosis has officials calling for better health screening for the waves of unskilled immigrant workers flooding smaller American communities.

In the wake of the January death at a Tyson Foods plant in Emporia, Kan., public health officials found 160 cases of latent TB among the facility’s 500 Somali workers, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Local officials say the case represents only a small part of the growing problem of foreign-born, unassimilated communities with high rates of communicable diseases such as TB and HIV. Many say they need help from Washington, which has been silent on the issue for too long.

“We have not really gotten Congress to engage, which I would like to see occur,” Peggy Mast, an 11-year Republican state representative from Kansas whose district includes Emporia, tells Newsmax. “I have talked with some of the offices and they think it is more of a state issue . . .”

The U.S. government has agreed to resettle more than 12,000 Somalis who fled their war-torn country in the past decade. Many have been living in refugee camps in Kenya prior to coming to America.

Mandatory health screenings are frequently put off for several months after the immigrants’ arrival. Those who blend into the secretive, tight-knit Somali community often do not resurface to be tested for communicable disease, officials complain.

Mast says that all levels of government need to be more pro-active in dealing with the issue of immigration workers, as it has opened up many additional areas of concerns including community safety, cultural clashes, and a long-term financial drain on communities where unskilled immigrants congregate for employment.

“From what I hear, I don’t think Kansas is unique in this,” Mast, 59, said. “These individuals are coming in with latent TB and HIV. This should not be. We are putting the general population at risk.”

The death of the worker at the local Tyson meatpacking facility was first reported by the Emporia Gazette. A town meeting was held on the issue, which opened many other areas of concerns by residents regarding the foreign workers.

Mast said the TB infections in the Somali community Emporia, a city of 28,000 people, the third highest TB rate in Kansas.

“[The Somali community] is dealing with active cases now,” she tells Newsmax. “This population is extremely difficult to track and it is hard to treat them. You have to make sure they are compliant with the medication and make sure they finish it up.”

Originally there were between 70 and 90 Somali workers at the Emporia plant who transferred to Kansas after a similar Tyson facility in Norfolk, Neb., shut down.

Now, Mast says there are some 500 Somali workers and “they are not the same people who came in originally.

“Most are single men from Minnesota and other places, because they heard of the packing plant and the wages of over $11 an hour, which is good for the unskilled population,” Mast says.

Public health officials still can’t determine if the Somali workers were infected while working in the Norfolk facility or elsewhere. What they do know, however, is that latent TB and other infectious diseases are prevalent among Somali and other humanitarian refugees arriving in the U.S.

She said there has been little family reunification among the male workers — something that could occur in the future and further exacerbate the problem and stress the community financially and culturally.

“There have already been several cultural clashes. This is a disservice to the population you are bringing in and you are inviting a cultural clash,” Mast says. “The fact there is such a cultural clash and where you have active TB cases, you only have to guess to imagine the fear that spreads through the community.”

Mast and others argue the federal government must conduct more thorough screenings on refugees entering the U.S. In addition to health concerns, she said there should be mandatory cultural education to help refugees assimilate.

“They do not understand the culture. Men tend not to show respect for women. They are very demanding and do not respect other people’s space,” Mast says. Additionally, she said the limited language skills have caused communication issues beyond simple day-to-day contact.

For example, Mast says most of the Somalis in Emporia are single males who live in a cluster near Emporia State University. She said several female students complained of being “extremely intimidated” by the Somali men’s presence.

Mast complains that Rep. Jerry Moran has advised Kansans that the Somali health and safety issues are state problems. She said she received more help from the mayor of Lewiston, Maine, a city of 36,000 that has a similar enclave of 1,200 Somali refugees — with 50 percent of them unemployed.

“Lewiston has asked Congress for more funding,” Mast says. “We look down the road and see the problems they can create. Unemployed single males with nothing to do.”

Mast says the “inconsistency of some of the authorities does not help create any sense of security.”

She notes that it is cultural for Somalis to marry up to four wives at one time.

“My concern is multiple children: Is our society prepared to take responsibility for caring for that size of the family? [Sponsors] say it will be a major resettlement [in Emporia]. The community is not ready for this,” Mast says.

Mast says even Catholic Charities, which helps with resettlement, could not give her an accurate count of how may refugees will ultimately resettle in her district.

“They do not know who they are, where they came from, what their intent is, and what we are looking at down the road,” she told Newsmax.

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