Tienda Mexicana is one of numerous Hispanic-owned businesses that now occupy Heavener’s once dying downtown district. Credit: Ron Jackson / Oklahoma Watch

HEAVENER—Atop Poteau Mountain, cloaked by white oak, black locust and other towering trees, sits the mysterious runestone. Ever since its discovery in 1874, experts have passionately debated whether the runic carvings on the stone were actually created by Viking explorers.

Today, a new dispute grips this southeastern Oklahoma community of 3,414 residents. Only this debate strays far from the intellectual trenches of academia, and is laced with a mixture of warmth, frustration, compassion and anger.

At its center are an estimated 1,410 Hispanic residents who account for 41% of Heavener’s total population, according to the 2010 Census. Based on an analysis by Oklahoma Watch, Heavener now has the third-highest concentration of Hispanic people in Oklahoma cities with 1,000 or more residents. Only Guymon and Watonga rank higher, with 52% and 47%, respectively.

A 10-year, immigration-fueled surge has only added to the tensions. Since 2000, Heavener’s Hispanic community has nearly doubled, jumping from 22%, or 721 people, to the present 41%. Some locals dispute the accuracy of the official numbers, arguing that the presence of uncounted illegal immigrants makes the true figure even higher.

In contrast to other Oklahoma communities where immigrants appear to be assimilating more smoothly, Heavener has been roiled by the rapid influx of newcomers. Neighbors argue openly, some locals say they’re ready to leave town, and two City of Heavener police officers resigned from the force in a dispute over immigration issues.

“I’m 100 percent against illegal immigration,” said Shawn Covert, a former part-time police officer who left the force last year. “I’m 100 percent for deportation—the wife, the kids, everybody. When they crossed the border illegally, they committed a felony and they should be punished as such.

“What bothers me the most is they have come in here and now they’re trying to de-Americanize us. I realize there are those who will call me a racist, but to me illegal immigration is not a race issue. It’s a legal issue.”

Perspective

Not everyone in Heavener shares Covert’s perspective.

“Look, they are hard-working, industrious people who are just trying to raise their families,” said Bruce Crickett, who moved to Heavener 27 years ago from California. “They rent. They buy groceries. They fix up houses. As far as I’m concerned, if it wasn’t for the Hispanics, this town would have dried up and blown away.”

Throughout Heavener’s old downtown district are signs of a new beginning. Mexican immigrants have moved businesses into four buildings on one street alone. One building—a former bar—is even being converted into a Catholic Church.

Until recently, time forgot Heavener’s aged downtown as most businesses moved less than a mile south on State Highway 128. The story is all too familiar in rural communities across Oklahoma. But in Heavener, the new arrivals have given the story a fresh twist.

“Some of the old-timers here want things to be like they were 40, 50 years ago when the downtown was thriving with businesses,” said Mike Kennerson, Heavener’s city manager since 2000. “Well, they’re not. Times have changed. So they blame the Hispanics. In fact, in some quarters, the Hispanics are blamed for all our ills. But the fact is they are making positive contributions to Heavener.

“Just look down the street.”

Oklahoma Foods

Heavener’s fate changed in 1988 when local organizers successfully recruited Oklahoma Foods. The company opened a chicken hatchery that year, bringing greatly needed jobs to an economically starved Le Flore County. In 1995, the company added a massive processing facility.

Today, Heavener is home to a plant where workers kill and de-bone chickens, as well as a neighboring feed mill and hatchery where the birds are carefully monitored from birth. Based on a 2009 report—the most recent data available to city officials—the company employs 985 workers with a payroll of $26 million.

Oklahoma Foods is by far Heavener’s largest employer, and without question, the principal magnet for Mexican immigrants.

“I remember back when we first heard news that the plant was coming to town,” recalled Martie Wisdom, a 1968 Heavener High School graduate who manages a downtown flower shop. “Everyone was so excited. Everyone was going to work there, and many did. Then a lot of them found it was hard work. So what did they do? They quit.

“Suddenly, there were these jobs and no one interested in filling them. Then the Hispanics came.”

Tabitha Silva, a lifelong Heavener resident, views the arrival of the Mexican immigrants as the ruination of her hometown. Silva is so disturbed by the large influx of Mexican residents that she is preparing to sell her house—a dwelling located in the middle of what many locals dub “Little Mexico.”

“I knew things were bad when my son (Nicholas, 5) came home from school his first day of pre-K,” said Silva, 33. “He said, ‘Mommy, no one in my class speaks English.’ Not only are they coming here illegally and taking our jobs and milking our system, but they’re not even trying to assimilate. We have kids going all the way through school who aren’t even trying to learn to speak English.

“We basically live in Mexico now. A lot of them have these bright pink and purple houses. I feel like I live in a cartoon.”

Silva, ironically, married a Brazilian immigrant 13 years ago. She said her husband, Neto Silva, first entered the United States with a student visa. Today he is an American citizen serving a 90-day tour in Afghanistan with the Air National Guard. He became a legal citizen in 2008, nine years after the couple’s wedding day.

“Yes, I’m married to an immigrant,” Tabitha Silva said. “But he did it the legal way. Even after we got married, we had to fill out an extensive amount of paperwork at a great financial expense.”

Silva seethes at the thought of others taking short-cuts. She isn’t alone.

Appeasement

Covert said he sees signs of a “cover-up.”

The former police officer said he resigned from his part-time post on July 1, 2011, when a superior told him he was required to give arrestees 30 minutes to post bail before transporting them to the Le Flore County jail 13 miles away in Poteau. Federal immigration officials are commonly notified by a county jailer if an individual can’t legally prove his or her residency after a reasonable search.

Covert interpreted this directive as “an appeasement” to illegal immigrants and an obstruction of his sworn duty as an officer of the law.

City Manager Kennerson contends Covert went out of his way to harass Hispanic residents.

“Look, if someone gets into trouble and they are proven illegal, then we let the law take its course,” Kennerson said. “Here’s the problem: We do not have federal immigration training, and therefore it is not up to our police officers—Shawn Covert or anyone else—to determine who is or isn’t a legal resident.

“What happened was ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was being called every five minutes to come and pick up someone we had arrested, and on a couple occasions, those individuals were proven to be legal citizens. Frankly, I’m surprised no one ever slapped us with a civil rights lawsuit.”

Covert points to House Bill 1804 as his legal authority. Specifically, he cites Section 10, Subsection C:

No local government, whether acting through its governing body or by an initiative, referendum, or any other process, shall enact any ordinance or policy that limits or prohibits a law enforcement officer, local official, or local government employee from communicating or cooperating with federal officials with regard to the immigration status of any person within this state.

“The reason the illegal immigration problem has increased so dramatically in Oklahoma is because of the lack of enforcement of House Bill 1804,” Covert said. “City governments like Heavener have created policies that create and offer sanctuary to illegal aliens.”

Police Chief Ty Armstrong defends the actions of his officers, saying his department does not promote policies—verbal or otherwise—that create a sanctuary for illegal immigrants.

“That’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Armstrong said. “The fact is we receive no support from the state or federal governments on how to deal with illegal immigrants, and we’re certainly not trained in that area. I do find it ironic that we’re being accused of being soft on illegal immigrants when, in the past, we’ve been accused by some in the Hispanic community of profiling Hispanics.”

Armstrong points to an incident a couple years ago as an example.

“I was asked to come to the school to speak with one Hispanic family who had a complaint,” Armstrong recalled. “When I arrived, I was greeted by 200 people. We moved the meeting into the gym, I grabbed a couple interpreters, and we talked. I feel like things have been fairly harmonious since then.”

As for Covert, Armstrong shrugs him off as an “outspoken man” whose views “border on the simple dislike of Mexicans.”

Tranquility seems to emanate across the valley that encompasses Heavener’s city limits. The land—once part of the Choctaw Nation—is plush with greenery, bordered by the scenic Winding Stair Mountains to the south and Poteau Mountain to the north.

The land is filled with an abundance of natural resources. The logging industry has long served as a staple of the local economy, as well as the dozens of rock quarries that still checker the countryside. They, too, have become magnets for Mexican immigrants.

Heavener also has shared a long and storied history with the Kansas City Southern Railway Company, which now uses a local depot as one of its main fueling stops.