Over the past six years, several hundred South Koreans have found a gateway to their American dream through a job — for a least one family member — at a chicken processing plant in Claxton.
With few if any exceptions, the families have become part of Statesboro’s burgeoning Korean community, at least for the year or so that the employees commute the 20 miles down U.S. 301 to Claxton Poultry. The peak year so far for the poultry plant’s Korean connection, 2011, has brought growth both in one church’s Korean ministry and in the demand for English courses in Statesboro.
When the Rev. Barnabas Myoung Choi arrived as pastor of the Korean Mission of Statesboro’s First Baptist Church in 2008, only about 25 people attended the Korean services, said his wife, Grace. They leave this week for his new job as senior associate pastor of Seoul Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, having seen the Statesboro congregation grow to a regular Sunday attendance of about 175.
Much of the growth, as Grace Choi attests, has resulted from the Claxton Poultry connection. Many families, she said, have come for just one year of employment at the plant and then moved on to other career goals and other parts of the United States.
Coming to Statesboro
“They love Statesboro. …,” Choi said. “Now some families decide to stay in Statesboro even after they finish their contract, but most of the families until now left Statesboro after one year.”
Koreans who have worked at jobs such as packing and weighing raw chicken include teachers, business owners and at least one former international banker, as various sources attest. Choi and her husband were not part of this trend but arrived in the U.S. in 2000 and 2001 before he attended seminary in New Orleans.
Some recent immigrants were interviewed for this story but then asked that personal details be withheld. Most mentioned educational opportunities as America’s biggest attraction. South Korea’s educational system is known for its quality, but also for its highly competitive nature. Faced with sending their children to academic after-school courses late into the evening for a chance to get into one of Korea’s relatively few universities, some parents see moving to America as a lower-stress route to high opportunity.
“Most people coming here had a good job in Korea,” Choi said. “But I think the number-one reason is for their children’s education. Korea has, you know, good education, but it’s all very focused on the college entrance, you know — studying, studying, studying all day.”
Learning English also is highly valued in South Korea, and parents see that children who attend American universities will have the opportunity either to become U.S. citizens or to return to Korea with economic advantages, Choi observed.
South Koreans wishing to emigrate wait years and pay tens of thousands of dollars to a Korean-based company that handles the paperwork and government fees. Some have reported spending about $30,000 to bring over three or four family members. But they arrive for work with lawful permanent resident status, the famous “green card,” in hand.
Atlanta-area attorney Simon Ahn represents Kukjei, the Korean company that sends immigrants to Claxton Poultry. Efforts to interview Ahn over the previous two weeks found him travelling and, although said to be in his office Dec. 16, he had not returned calls by Monday.
Claxton Poultry Farms employs about 1,600 people at the plant in Claxton, plus about 200 more at other facilities in Glennville and Savannah. Since Claxton Poultry started the arrangement with Kukjei in 2005, between 275 and 300 Korean workers have arrived for jobs, said Tobin Spirer, Claxton Poultry’s public relations spokesman.
The first year, 2005, only 12 Koreans accepted jobs at the plant. Some of the following years there were no new arrivals, Spirer said. For reasons the company doesn’t know, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul sometimes doesn’t process immigration requests, he said.
With as little explanation, more visas have been processed in 2011, resulting in the most arrivals of any year so far, 98, according to Spirer. He said that all 98 remain on the job.
CP: Citizens not displaced
“There have not been enough Korean workers coming in, in this effort, to really meaningfully impact the workforce,” Spirer said.
Federal laws prohibit employers from preferring any nationality or discriminating against U.S. citizens by hiring people from other countries. However, when there is a need not filled by citizens and legal residents, companies can recruit internationally. Designating a U.S. employer and job can also help immigrants obtain employment-based visas, as seen in documents on the U.S. State Department website.
“As a whole, the Koreans have proven to be hard-working, diligent, timely — everything you would want in an employee — and if we could take more of them, we would, without displacing any other class or group of people,” Spirer said. “There is an almost continual need for more employees at Claxton Poultry.”
This remains true despite Georgia’s recent 10 percent unemployment, he said. Jobs at the plant start at $8 an hour, more than the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Health insurance is available for purchase after 60 days on the job and a 401(k) plan after six months.
A few immigrants have remained at the plant for several years, but most have moved on. The poultry company, Spirer said, requires no commitment for a year or other time period. Claxton Poultry has no role in the arrangements the immigrants make with Kukjei or the U.S. government, he said.
“We have an arrangement with Kukjei to take the employees that they offer us,” Spirer said. “We don’t pay for that. We don’t offer them any money. Simply they approach us and say, ‘We have this many employees,’ and we say, ‘We’ll take them. Do they have their green cards; are they properly credentialed?’ The answer is yes, and they become workers.”
The company’s count does not include other family members that employees bring with them. Few if any of the workers’ families have settled in Evans County, where Claxton Poultry’s plant is based. In the 2010 census, only six of Evans County’s exactly 11,000 residents checked “Korean” as their nationality.
But there were 208 self-reported Koreans among Bulloch County’s total population of 70,217 in spring 2010, before those 98 Korean workers joined Claxton Poultry’s workforce during 2011.
Available housing, a belief in the quality of Bulloch County’s schools, and the fact that the Statesboro now has an established Korean community are factors that immigrants mention in their choice of a home. First Baptist established its Korean mission in 1999, the Chois noted, so it predates the Claxton connection. But attendance has grown much more rapidly with the influx. Some Koreans attend other churches, but only First Baptist is known to offer Korean-language services, including services Wednesday night and Saturday morning as well as Sunday.
This fall, Ogeechee Technical College’s classes in English to Speakers of Other Languages enrolled more than 80 Korean adults and only eight other immigrants representing six different nationalities, reported teacher Amy Perry. The classes are offered Tuesday and Thursday evenings at OTC and Monday and Wednesday mornings at Statesboro Regional Library.
Among children served by ESOL teachers in the Bulloch County Schools, Koreans are the fastest-growing, but still second largest, group behind Spanish speakers, said Georgiana Darsey, the system’s ESOL coordinator. She recently received word from Kukjei to expect more Korean children in coming months.
Land of opportunity?
That the Koreans are still coming may puzzle Americans. When U.S. unemployment dipped below 9 percent in November for the first time in more than two years, South Korea’s unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, according to TradingEconomics.com.
Sang Un Yun, visiting professor of Finance and Quantitative Analysis at Georgia Southern University, offered some explanation of why Koreans still see the U.S. as a land of opportunity. Put simply, Korea is crowded.
“These days the reduction of population, especially the young population, is the issue over there,” Yun said.
He also mentioned the educational pressures on children, and observed that Koreans still admire American educational institutions. Yun represents another route a few Koreans take to Statesboro, as academics in the hometown of GSU with its more than 20,000 students. Affiliated with Yosei University in Seoul, he has twice made the transit to Georgia Southern.
On his first visit in 2004-’05, he set up an informal English class for the first small influx of South Koreans to Claxton Poultry.
Yun observes that business owners and professionals are the majority, not the exception, among the area’s South Korean immigrants. While they initially take low-skilled jobs as a door into the U.S., most intend to move back up the economic ladder quickly, he said.
“In my opinion, it is very beneficial to America to get good people and investment. They have to spend maybe several (times) $10,000 to come over here, and if you see these people, they all buy good cars,” Yun said, laughing at this last observation. “So they’re rich enough to bring the money into the United States.”