Immigration in the Midlands: Newberry's growing Hispanic population

(Newberry) November 27, 2006 - City leaders call Newberry "everything you expected - and more." And one thing they expect is more of a growing Hispanic influence.

It's growing, in the heart of the city, in places like Mi Mercadito, one of the newest stores on Main Street. Jesus Galvez and his wife opened for business last year, across Main from the 125-year-old Newberry Opera House, "I look in other places, but this is the best place we can open downtown. Main Street is the principal street."

Galvez moved to South Carolina in 2004 after five years in Oklahoma. He and his family, part of a wave of Hispanic immigrants flooding the Palmetto state, changing the way Newberry and other counties handle law enforcement, according to Sheriff Lee Foster, "In Newberry County, the Hispanic population generally are victims more than they are offenders."

Health care is also affected, according to Lynn Beasley of Newberry County Hospital, "It's one thing to find someone that speaks Spanish, but also that speaks and understands medical terminology."

Estimates put Newberry County's Hispanic population at between six and as high as 15 percent. Whatever the figures, that growth is having a profound impact on this county.

It starts at Newberry County Memorial Hospital. In "New Beginnings," the hospital's birthing facility, 30 percent of the babies are now born to Hispanic families. Many have no documentation, no insurance.

By law, the hospital must provide care. The resulting financial losses can run into the millions.

Beasley knows that hurts the hospital, "We do lose money. There are more uninsured patients than there are fully insured patients. And even when we get reimbursed under Medicaid, it covers only a fraction of our costs."

Latino students also pose challenges for Newberry County schools. Most obvious, superintendent Bennie Bennett says, is the language barrier, "You have a lot of young people who are just as intelligent as any other, but sometimes the language just you know maybe causes them some problems there and it puts a little bit of a burden on us to make sure that we have things in place to assist them with that."

School districts must bear that burden, even if students come from undocumented families.

One sample shows 70 percent of Mexicans entering South Carolina are here illegally. State Senator Ronnie Cromer says, "The federal law says that we can't ask for papers to determine whether a person is here legally or illegally and they're allowed to go to our public schools, which you know I think we probably would want to educate but with an influx of these people into the Newberry, Saluda, Lexington Counties, it really does put a strain on the school systems."

A recent USC study says relatively few immigrants in Beaufort, Jasper, Saluda, Newberry and other counties have sought public assistance. Most came to the US to work, in businesses like Louis Rich in Newberry County - in construction, agriculture, landscaping and service industries.

While it's hard to determine the overall economic impact of immigrants on the state, another USC study says Mexicans alone have $3 to $4 billion in spending power here.

Sixty-two percent of Mexican immigrants plan someday to return to Mexico. But Jesus Galvez believes right now, more are on the way, "I see new people every week, every month. We see more and more people, Spanish people here."

Galvez says the work is the draw. It is after all, a land of opportunity.

Reported by Jack Kuenzie

Posted 5:59pm by Chantelle Janelle