Brittany SCHELL - GEORGETOWN, United States (AFP) - The historic heart of this small US town was trimmed in patriotic red, white and blue for "Return Day," but only a part of the community celebrates this 200-year-old tradition marking the end of elections.

People from longstanding Delaware families gathered to hear results from the town crier and eat roast ox sandwiches, but a few blocks away from the historical trappings it was just another day at El Mercado. The supermarket serves the immigrant families who have transformed the small community of Georgetown in the past 20 years.

As a man bought chicken feet from the butcher counter and Spanish-language news played on a television in the back, the teenage girl running the cash register asked: "What's 'Return Day'?"

Today, almost half of Georgetown's 6,400 residents identify as Hispanic, and many still speak Spanish. Most are from Guatemala and have arrived since the early 1990s.

The small town reflects how immigration is changing the face of the US, which is thought to be home to some 11.3 million illegal immigrants - mostly from Mexico and Central America.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama pledged to overhaul what he called America's "broken" immigration system by offering protection from deportation to some five million undocumented migrants, a move the Republicans have vowed to fight.

In Georgetown, there was resistance from some in the traditional community when the influx began, and some ugly incidents. But the two groups now live parallel lives, side-by-side but largely separate.  "We've still got some people that are old school, who don't want to change," said Mayor Bill West. "But I'm telling people, 'we've got to change.' They're here to stay. Let's make this work."

In 1990, the census recorded just 75 people of Hispanic origin in Georgetown, but now the small town boasts one of the highest concentrations of Guatemalans in the United States.

In the fall of 1993, tensions rose when a Guatemalan, driving drunk and without a license, hit and killed a teenage girl. The incident left a sense of distrust that lingered for years, according to Delaware historian Roger Horowitz.

Fighting intolerance

Gerson Guox, who fled Guatemala's bloody civil war in 1990, remembers getting kicked out of a restaurant on the edge of town when he tried to have dinner with his brother. "We walked in the door, and the owner of the restaurant told us we were not allowed to be in there," he said. Guox called the police, but the owner refused to back down. He told the story with a laugh, sitting in the same building more than a decade later.

Guox arrived in Georgetown via Los Angeles in 1993, part of a wave of Latin Americans drawn by jobs in the booming poultry industry.  "I always wanted to get a better life, follow the American dream," said Guox, who lived in the shadows until he was granted political asylum and then US citizenship.

He worked in poultry plants and restaurants, trying to make a new life with his wife, an immigrant from Mexico.

A few years ago he bought the premises from which he was once barred and turned it into "La Quetzalteca", a Mexican restaurant named after the Guatemalan currency the quetzal.

But Guox still has the police report from that night, a reminder of how far he, and the town, have come.

Over the past two decades a number of restaurants, stores and services have opened in Georgetown catering to the growing Hispanic population.

'A classic immigration story'

The Kimmeytown neighborhood has become a vibrant Little Guatemala where residents can buy a quinceanera dress, grab a copy of the newspaper "Hoy en Delaware" or get a taste of home.

Organizations like La Esperanza community center, Habitat for Humanity, and La Red Health Center have also set up shop in Georgetown. Immigrants are buying houses and starting families.

"It's a classic immigration story," Horowitz said. "There's a lot of chaos, then the community stabilizes."

But a more recent wave of newcomers has forced the town to adapt once again.

Earlier this year more than 100 young migrants were placed in Delaware by the federal government, a handful of the 68,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border into the US and made headlines over the summer The arrival at Sussex Central High School of at least 70 new students, many who spoke no English, took the school district by surprise.

"It's an exponential problem," said school board member Donald Hattier.

"If you've already planned your budget for a certain number of kids, and all of a sudden somebody drops that many kids on you, it takes resources away from kids that are already here."

Responding quickly, Indian River School District in September launched a program designed for the new students, and is making plans in case there are more unexpected arrivals. At La Quetzalteca, it's hard to imagine a time when Hispanics were not welcome. One of Guox's daughters darted in and out of booths where diners are greeted in Spanish and English.

"When I get up every day, I say to myself, 'Gerson, act like this is your first day in America'," Guox said. "'But use everything you have now, and compare it to what you had when you came over here'."