Former Mayor Sees Country of 'Everybody'

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John Sampier Jr., former mayor of Rogers, Arkansas
John Sampier Jr. (Photo by Leonard Sparks)

ROGERS, Ark. - The previous decade is beginning to fall away from John Sampier Jr.'s memory as the former Rogers mayor focuses on developing environmentally friendly wastewater treatment plants and enjoying time with grandchildren. 

But he thinks it was 1992 when he first recognized a significant Latino presence in Rogers, which sits between Springdale and Bentonville in northwest Arkansas. Then a soccer coach, Sampier was walking toward a practice field when he noticed two teams of young Latinos playing each other.

"Such was my innocence, [that] I commented to my fellow coach, 'Well, that's interesting. Couple of traveling teams here, I guess,' " Sampier recalls. "He said, 'No, mayor. They live here.' "

As the Latino presence grew, more and more people began to notice. Sampier, like many people in the area, believes the browning of northwest Arkansas' previously all-white population has been relatively incident free. But the early years were not free of questions and concerns.

"People would come up, like someone had landed here from another planet, and say, 'What are they like?' " Sampier says. "I said, 'Well, it's a strange thing. Here's what I observed about them. They have a strong work ethic. The men are very involved in raising their families. They're very religious. They don't trust credit.' And I said, 'Does that sound familiar?' "

Sampier worked to resolve cultural clashes and to integrate Rogers' new residents. One day, a man who would later represent a group called Americans for an Immigration Moratorium showed up at a Rogers town council meeting and began complaining about illegal immigrants in Rogers.

"He began attracting some like-minded people," Sampier says. "They didn't like me, and I didn't like them."

Some believe that an anti-immigrant movement doomed Sampier when he ran for reelection in 1998, ending a 17-year run as mayor. Sampier says other factors contributed, including better campaigning by his opponent, current Rogers Mayor Steve Womack.

He is just as sure that Latino migration to the area has benefited not only labor-starved businesses, but also the region's communities. 

"We've got a little bit of everything now, and I think that's good," he says. "If you live in France, you're French. If you live in Germany, you're a German. If you live in the United States, you're an idea.

"We're everybody, and that's what's made this country so strong."