Last fall, the FBI derailed a plot by homegrown extremists to blow up an apartment complex in Garden City, Kan., that housed Somali refugees who had come there to work in the town’s meatpacking plants. In the latest story from FERN, produced in partnership with The New Republic, writer Ted Genoways tells how the town rallied around its newest residents, letting them know they were an important part of the community, and unwinds a tale of hatred and love in the Heartland that showcases the complexity of the immigration debate.
In the 1980s, as the meatpacking industry shifted from midwestern cities to the open plains, towns like Garden City saw their populations soar as immigrants—from Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Mexico, and, starting in 2006, Somalia—arrived to work in the region’s packing houses. The majority-white towns were unprepared for the influx, and tensions often ran high.
“In an effort to improve conditions nationwide, the Ford Foundation sponsored studies of communities across the country that were grappling with the arrival of large numbers of new immigrants,” Genoways writes. “Garden City was selected as the sole case study for small towns in middle America. Spurred by Ford’s involvement, the community came to see its growing diversity as good for business. Town police worked with the new arrivals to ease crime; local leaders helped refugees set up their own businesses. For a small Kansas town in the middle of nowhere, Garden City had the feel of a bigger, more progressive city.”
The 2016 plot, led by three avowed supporters of Donald Trump who embraced his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, was to blow up the apartment complex on the night of the presidential election. “The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim,” Patrick Stein, one of the alleged conspirators, told his fellow plotters. “If you’re a Muslim, I’m going to enjoy shooting you in the head.”
Michael Utz, Garden City’s police chief, “had been interacting with refugee families since he was a rookie officer in the 1980s. … There were cultural differences, of course, but he had found that if he learned and respected those differences, the job got easier for him and more effective for the people he was sworn to protect. So when he was named chief in 2015, Utz organized monthly meetings with a group of leaders from the local African community.”
As Utz told Genoways, “I mean, we’re all immigrants in some fashion.”
To read a Q&A with Genoways about the piece, click here.