Early on a wintry Friday night, cars stream into the parking lot of a nondescript warehouse in an industrial area in Kansas City, Kan. Kids in soccer gear pile out and rush into the building, parents following them.
The sign outside says “Soccer Nation KC,” but it could just as easily proclaim “Soccer United Nations.” Inside, the flags of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria, Brazil, the United States, Mexico and other countries create a patriotic display over one end of the soccer field.
Fluent Spanish is spoken here — by the employees, by many players and by Raul Villegas, the 38-year-old Mexican immigrant who owns this indoor soccer center that serves a growing clientele of about 3,000 children and adults.
Villegas was born in Puebla, one of the poorest parts of Mexico, where he washed cars at age 8 to help his family, a memory that still brings tears to his eyes. His parents brought the family to California, to the dicey streets of south-central Los Angeles, because it was one of the few places where families with little money could afford to live.
“Coming from Mexico, coming straight to South Central, it was very tough,” Villegas said. “It was a little bit scary.”
Villegas now lives in Wyandotte County, where 15 percent of the nearly 160,000 residents are foreign-born. More than half of those immigrants are from Mexico, according to the latest U.S. census figures.
In the five-county Kansas City metro area, 125,000 immigrants make up 7.3 percent of the 1.7 million population, a smaller percentage than other cities of comparable size. The percentages are even smaller on a statewide level in Kansas and Missouri, both of which are considered “low immigration” states.
While foreign-born residents make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for just 6.79 percent of the Kansas population. In Missouri, immigrants account for not quite 4 percent of the total population, one of the lowest ratios of any state in the nation.
The numbers are small. But when University of Kansas economics professor Donna Ginther recently studied foreign-born residents in the KC area, she found something distinctive about immigrants who move here.
They stay and plant roots.
About two-thirds of immigrants in Kansas, Missouri and the Kansas City metro area have been here for more than 10 years and are more likely to be proficient in English and more settled in their communities than newer arrivals, Ginther and her fellow researchers found.
It says a lot, she said, that even though new immigrants aren’t pouring into Kansas City, “the people who do come like it and stick around. That suggests, to a certain extent, that we are a welcoming community.”
They ‘come here with nothing’
Immigration in the United States continues to be a hot-button topic — in the 2016 presidential race and in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks in November.
Who should be kicked out? Who should be kept out? Mexicans? Muslims? Syrian refugees?
Gov. Sam Brownback recently expanded his efforts to forbid state agencies from assisting Syrian refugees resettling in Kansas “until such time as an adequate vetting process is in place with adequate assurances” to guarantee the refugees aren’t terrorists.
At the same time, a growing number of communities across the country, including St. Louis, are trying to attract immigrants. Last summer, Mayor Francis Slay and a group of business and civic leaders launched the St. Louis Mosaic Project. The goal: Remake a city that has lost thousands of jobs in the last decade by reducing the hurdles to immigrants living and working there.
The challenges are steep. As a lawyer for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Ron Nguyen has helped many immigrants push through barriers. Many immigrants “come here with nothing,” he said.
Many don’t speak English, which means they rely on English-speaking friends, if they’re lucky to have them, to do basic things such as signing rent leases, opening bank accounts and filling out employment applications.
Some get into trouble with the law because they can’t read things like traffic citations or housing code violations written in English. Not knowing English also prevents some refugees who are legally eligible for public assistance from getting it.
Every now and then Nguyen wonders: “What made my family so special that they were able to make it here?”
In his immigrant clients he sees his parents, Vietnamese boat people who escaped after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and created a new life in Chicago through the kindness of American strangers.
His parents met in law school in Vietnam. His mother never got a chance to practice because of the war.
His father, who served in the secret police in Vietnam, took a job as a dishwasher when he arrived because he didn’t know English. He went on to build a career in telecommunications and a comfortable life for his four sons — a podiatrist, an engineer, a doctor and a lawyer.
Nguyen moved from suburban Chicago to Kansas City in 2008 to attend law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, fulfilling his mother’s request that at least one of her children have the career she couldn’t.
“When people come in here, I always look at my clients as though they’re my mom and dad.” said Nguyen, 28.
“I’m going to do the best I can for them because this could be my mom, this could be my dad. Their children could be the next me.”
Nguyen was a child himself the first time he heard someone tell his older brother, Charles: “Hey Charlie, go back home.”
He didn’t know what that meant, didn’t understand that “Charlie” was a reference to the Viet Cong and that they were telling his brother to go “back” to Vietnam.
“I don’t think I should be here,” Nguyen told his mom, worried that he didn’t belong in the United States.
“No, you were born here,” she told him. “You belong here.”
He’s had fewer in-your-face run-ins with racism as an adult, though he has been told, “Go back to Vietnam. You don’t know how to drive.”
Asians in general, he believes, aren’t treated as “illegals” the same way other minority groups are.
“I haven’t felt much of it in Kansas City,” he said. “I think as our diversity is increasing we’re becoming more of an understanding city.”
And even as Nguyen senses anti-immigrant feelings building as political discussions about refugees and immigrants have grown louder in recent months, he hasn’t felt any backlash personally. And that might be because people who hold prejudices privately don’t always express them publicly.
“It’s not uncommon. Psychologists have been studying this and thinking about this issue for a long time,” said Clay Routledge, an associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “You can think about people as having their private inner self and having a public self.”
In terms of our public self, “we’re social animals, so we’re very concerned about what other people think, a characteristic that social psychologists call ‘social desirability,’ ” Routledge said.
“We don’t want to be ostracized or marginalized by others. So I think where you see so much racism and prejudice and homophobia and religious prejudice on the Internet is because of the anonymity of it, where people can say how they feel and not experience any social consequences. They don’t have to be accountable.
“Whereas you treat a neighbor poorly or if you make a public scene and discriminate against somebody, there’s the concern that other people will lash out at you or there will be backlash.”
Early on, psychologists researching prejudice and discrimination came up with the “contact hypothesis,” Routledge said.
“If you take the mystery from the ‘other’ by having people interact with people from various backgrounds they’ll start to realize that at the core, we all want the same thing,” he said.
“We all care about family, we care about relationships, we want to live lives of meaning.”
‘Here is our home’
Linheng Li, born in the Shanxi province of China, sounds as if he’s giving a pitch for the Chamber of Commerce when he describes what has kept him and his family in Kansas City.
Traditional family values. Great schools. People so friendly that even strangers wave to them on the street.
Li and his wife, Xi He, also born in China, moved to Kansas City in 2000, the beginning of Kansas City’s immigrant boom years. “We didn’t realize we would be here 15 years,” Li said.
They had already lived in the United States for more than a decade — they both did postgraduate work at New York University — when their employer, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, relocated them here from Seattle.
They make their home with their family not far from Stowers, where he is working on new ways to treat leukemia and she is researching colon cancer.
“China gave us birth,” said He. “But for our culture, and for our family, we have the United States. So I would say here is our home right now.”
Over the last decade the proportion of immigrants like Li and his family who have lived in the area at least 15 years has grown steadily, Ginther reported in her study, “Economic Impact of Immigration in Kansas City and the Bi-State Region.”
Between 80 and 85 percent of immigrants living in the Kansas City area have now been in the country at least five years, said Ginther, director of the Center for Science, Technology & Economic Policy at KU.
“The cost of living is reasonable,” she said. “We have a diverse economy, so the opportunity is here. So if you can afford to live here and have a reasonable chance of making a living, then you’re going to stay.”
Growing Indian population
In 50 years Asian newcomers are projected to be the largest group of migrants in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. In Kansas City, and across the country, immigrants from India are becoming a particular force.
People born in India are the second-largest immigrant group living in the Kansas City area. According to 2014 census figures, Indian immigrants made up nearly 31 percent of the foreign-born population in the five-country metro area, Mexican immigrants about 34 percent.
That fact is not lost on Garima Yadav. As outgoing president of the India Association of Kansas City, she oversees a mailing list of about 10,000 families in and around Kansas City, including Wichita, Topeka and Omaha, Neb.
In the 11 years she has lived in Kansas City, the local Indian population “has grown exponentially,” said Yadav, a software architect for Intouch Solutions, a pharmaceutical marketing company.
“We have seen people coming here from all parts of India. Not just one part of India is represented here.”
When she considers how many neighbors on her street in Overland Park were, like her, born in India, she can only think of two who were not. She is related by marriage to a few of those neighbors. Her husband’s family lives just a couple of blocks away.
Her father-in-law, Shiv Yadav, brought his family to Kansas City 18 years ago when his Singapore-based company transferred him here.
It was a delayed dream come true for him. When he studied physics and business management at the University of Delhi in the late 1960s “there was a craze in my generation to come to the United States for higher education,” he said.
Yadav moved to Kansas City after meeting Shiv Yadav’s son through an Indian dating website. She and her husband have been married for 11 years now and are parents of two school-age children who are learning to speak Hindi from their grandfather.
The Yadavs were all bilingual when they came to Kansas City. In fact, the majority of Indian immigrants coming to the United States speak English, a language most learn in school.
Knowing English, she said, could be one reason she has never been exposed to racism here. The ugliness of discrimination has never reached her through the tight-knit net of family, co-workers and friends, most from similar educational and economic backgrounds.
“If I was to work in a restaurant — I would love to do that one day — or in a place where I would meet people from various different backgrounds, I think I would have a (different) story to tell you,” she said.
‘I followed my heart’
Kansas City’s immigrant population has been in flux in recent years. It rose steadily in the first seven years of this century. Then the U.S. economy tanked and the movement of new immigrants to the area slowed. People left to find jobs elsewhere.
Nationally, and in Kansas City too, the flow of people moving here from Mexico has slowed as well. People have gone back.
A Pew Research Center study released last fall found that the number of Mexican nationals and their children moving back to Mexico is now higher than the migration of Mexicans into the United States, which peaked in 2000.
About 1 million people left the United States for Mexico between 2009 and 2014, according to Pew’s statistics. Sixty-one percent of those said they moved back to reunite with or start a family, Pew found.
Locally, Mexicans accounted for 38 percent of foreign-born residents in the metro area in 2006. Four years later, they were 33.8 percent of the local foreign-born population, according to the census.
Olathe is home to the fastest-growing population of Hispanic immigrants in the metro area. Seeing so many newcomers move into his city — many starting businesses, particularly on the west side of town — Mayor Michael Copeland challenged local leaders.
What are we doing to help them? What are we doing beyond the annual National Hispanic Heritage Month proclamation?
A group called the Latino Coalition sprang from that challenge. Members from the public and private sectors, faith communities, hospitals, nonprofit groups and the Latino community have banded together to make Olathe an easier place for new Hispanic residents to work and live.
The simple act of giving immigrants information has been key to their efforts, said Raul Duran, a coalition member who works for Arvest Bank.
“You come to a country where there are a lot of roadblocks,” said Duran, whose parents were born in Mexico. “Our task was first of all to educate.”
In November the coalition ran its first business expo, a bilingual fair aimed at Hispanics. The next one will tackle housing issues.
In her study, KU researcher Ginther found that skilled immigrants are more likely than skilled native residents to start their own businesses and small firms, which are more likely to grow and help boost local economies.
“One of the first and most important things we found is that immigrants are related to economic growth and population growth in a community,” said Ginther, adding that immigrant entrepreneurship is lower in Kansas and Missouri than the rest of the United States.
Soccer Nation owner Villegas recently expanded his growing operation — named Small Business of the Year in 2015 by the KCK Chamber of Commerce and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce — by opening a second El Padrino party store in Olathe.
He inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from his father, Alejandro, who ran a sewing factory in L.A. until clothing companies outsourced the work overseas.
Not being able to speak English when he first moved to California made him feel different. Spanish speakers there tended to stick together to shield themselves from prejudice.
But he said he’s never felt the sting of discrimination in Kansas City, “I think because we stick to soccer. … I would say Kansas City is a very comfortable place.”
Villegas followed his father to the area in 2003 and worked with him at two grocery stores he ran in Kansas City, Kan., but his heart wasn’t really in the work.
As a boy, Villegas had dreamed of playing professional soccer, so he suggested to his dad that they sell soccer gear out of one of their stores.
“He said: ‘You’re the only one who likes soccer. Nobody else in Kansas City likes soccer,’ ” Villegas said. “That was one of those times I followed my heart.”
He’s happy now that he did. As he got involved in local soccer circles he saw how every winter, kids and parents in Kansas City, Kan., had to drive to indoor fields in Blue Springs and Johnson County to play. So he started his own league and built his own indoor facility — 40,000 square feet with three fields.
Today he runs 130 adult and 80 youth teams. Last year he worked with the Mexican Consulate in Kansas City to host a free tournament to promote health and fitness in the Hispanic community.
Villegas had a lot of helping hands boosting him toward success — the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, El Centro, the Kauffman Foundation and the folks at Sporting KC.
“In bigger cities you don’t get that help,” Villegas said. “But people here, they’re very accommodating and helpful and they reach out to us.”
He wants his two children — Raul, 12, and America, 10 — to grow up here. But happy as he is in Kansas City, “I see myself retiring along the beach, somewhere warmer,” he said.
Lisa Gutierrez: 816-234-4987