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Garden City Documentary Tells Story of Immigration and Inclusion

Strangers in Town is a new documentary about Garden City by Lawrence filmmaker Steve Lerner.

With residents from nearly three dozen different countries, Garden City is perhaps the most diverse city in all of Kansas. Now, the southwest Kansas community is the focus of a new documentary. Commentator Rex Buchanan says the film explores the challenges and opportunities presented by an influx of immigrants from so many different places.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, traveler and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence. 

Learn more about the new documentary Strangers in Town by Lawrence filmmaker Steve Lerner.


From what I can tell, most people in eastern Kansas don’t know much about western Kansas.  Some people in Lawrence seem to think that the world ends at Wakarusa Drive out on the west edge of town.  That’s one reason it’s good to see a new documentary called “Strangers in Town” by Lawrence filmmaker Steve Lerner.  It’s about the evolution and challenges of diversity in Garden City, in southwestern Kansas.

Lerner collaborated with colleagues Rueben Aaronson and Jim Jewell to produce the 33-minute film.  It is a nuanced, thoughtful telling of Garden City’s ethnic diversity, presented largely through the eyes of area families, a newspaper editor, town manager, church leaders, and academics like KU anthropology professor Don Stull.

The result, I think, has lessons for all of us.

Garden City’s population is about 25,000.  It has long had a substantial Hispanic population, partly related to its early days as a railroad town.  But in 1980, Iowa Beef Processing, or IBP, opened a packing plant in Holcomb, just west of Garden City.  That plant slaughtered 6000 head of cattle a day and employed 3000 people.

That created a demand for labor that led to an influx of a various ethnic groups.  Hispanics, Central Americans, Vietnamese, Somalis, and others moved to Garden City to work at the plant, now owned by Tyson.  Many used those jobs as an economic springboard to start their own businesses.  Today, Garden City is home to people from at least 35 countries.  Twenty-six languages are spoken in the Garden City school system.

Lerner’s film focuses on the way Garden City came to terms with that influx of immigrants.  Although some towns on the High Plains fought immigration, Garden City took a more welcoming approach, treating immigration as an opportunity, not a problem.  The result is something of an inclusionary success story.

In light of current debates over immigration, Lerner’s film seems incredibly timely.  His interview with a student who fled Central America puts a painfully human face on people who want to come to this country, and the challenges they face.

Lerner produced an earlier documentary about Kansas water issues.  These two topics, immigration and water, are inextricably intertwined.  Water from the Ogallala aquifer helps grow the grain that caused feedlots to expand in southwestern Kansas, leading to big packing plants in Liberal, Dodge, and the one in Holcomb.   Irrigators, packing plants, the feedlots--all rely on that Ogallala water.  And many of them rely on immigrants for labor.

A few weeks ago, Lerner screened the film to a standing-room-only crowd at the Lawrence Arts Center. There were good questions and lots of conversation.

The crowd seemed to come away with a new appreciation of the immigration challenges and responses out west.  I’ve spent a fair amount time out west, doing field work, going to meetings, touring the IBP plant.  But I learned something from the film too.  Maybe, just maybe, people here in eastern Kansas are a little more interested in things out west than I thought, at least when it comes to immigration.


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