“I hope this will heal some of the divisions,” said Lisa Kremer, a local immigrants’ rights activist. “But I don’t anticipate that it will make our problems go away, as far as racism and bias towards immigrants.”
Worthington drew national attention in September after a story in The Washington Post featured a local bus driver who objects to the presence of the undocumented children he delivers to school and helped lead the opposition to the referendums.
After the article was published, the man faced calls for him to be fired.
More than a thousand miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the town of 13,000 nonetheless finds itself at the center of a national debate on immigration.
Since the fall of 2013, more than 270,000 children — most from Central America — have crossed the southwestern frontier without a parent and then been released to relatives in the United States as they wait for immigration hearings.
Many of these unaccompanied minors ended up in large cities, like Los Angeles, Houston or the Washington, D.C., area. Thousands more, however, have ended up in small towns where their impact is dramatic.
Worthington has received more of these unaccompanied minors per capita than almost anywhere in the country, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The arrival of more than 400 unaccompanied minors in the past six years has helped swell Worthington’s student population by almost one-third, forcing administrators to convert storage space into classrooms and leaving teachers without classrooms.
As the schools struggled, the town wrestled with how to treat the new arrivals. Advocates donated food and clothes and volunteered to drive unaccompanied minors to their court hearings, three hours away. But a Catholic priest who voiced support for the immigrants was booed from the pews and received death threats.
Five times since the fall of 2013, voters in Nobles County were asked to expand the school system. “Yes” and “No” signs sprang up across town. Next-door neighbors stopped speaking over the issue. And some locals even boycotted businesses that had taken sides.
Five times, the referendums failed, including by just 17 votes in February.
On Tuesday, the margins flipped.
While 52 percent supported building a new school for fourth- and fifth-graders for $27 million, a second question over an additional $7 million for third-graders won approval by 19 votes out of more than 3,400 ballots cast. A third question related to refinancing bonds also passed.
Jane Turpin Moore, a local freelance journalist, said the atmosphere ahead of the referendum had been different this time around.
“The negative voices were muffled if not drowned out by the more positive tone,” she said, noting that there were far more “Yes” signs. A small group of teenagers had hung around Worthington’s single polling center on Tuesday night, celebrating when the results were read out at around 9 p.m.
“When they heard that all three questions passed, they were jumping up and down and cheering,” she said, citing a poll worker. “That was unusual.”
“I’m just very relieved,” said Kremer, the immigrants’ rights advocate, adding that many of her Vote Yes friends were “ecstatic.”
Schools Superintendent John Landgaard, who had been stung by the controversy, said he hoped the referendum’s success would help the town turn a page.
“I think it’s the first step in trying to get things back on track,” he said. The result showed, he said, “that the community is willing to support kids education, no matter where you come from.”
Dan Van Hove, a Worthington resident who voted “yes” on the referendum, said the result showed “the real Worthington . . . hard-working people just trying to make their community a better place.”
But David Bosma, a truck driver who is chairman of the Worthington Citizens for Progress Committee — the group that opposed the referendums — said he felt Tuesday’s results would only deepen the town’s problems.
“I think the new school is going to compound and increase the issues that are going on with minor immigrant children being placed here,” he said.
Bosma said his main concern was the welfare of unaccompanied minors, many of whom are smuggled all the way to Worthington and are vulnerable to exploitation.
“There is honest-to-God human trafficking that is being perpetrated, with our city as a hub,” he said. “The bad situations that a lot of these kids are going through . . . are only going to increase.”
Mayor Mike Kuhle disputed that idea.
“It’s good for our community to get this passed,” he said. But he agreed that the country’s immigration system was broken, and said that Washington had abandoned places like Worthington.
“A lot of it is beyond our control,” he said. “We need a secure border but we also need a clear, better, faster pathway to citizenship. The whole immigration system needs to be fixed but the federal government . . . is not getting it done.”
Until it does, he said, tensions over immigration in Worthington weren’t going away.
“It only passed by 19 votes,” he said of the referendum. “The division is still there.”