Cepeda column: Rural communities that embrace immigrants show signs of revival
CHICAGO — I can’t think of a stronger endorsement for the positive role that Latino immigrants are playing in rural towns across the country than the heartfelt words of Rob Tibbetts, father of Mollie, the 20-year-old Iowa college student who was recently found dead after being missing for five weeks:
“The Hispanic community are Iowans. They have the same values as Iowans,” Tibbetts said, during his daughter’s funeral, according to The Des Moines Register. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re Iowans with better food.”
Tibbetts said he felt the need to defend the immigrants in his small town of Brooklyn, Iowa, because so many had used his daughter’s tragedy to highlight that her killer was an immigrant from Mexico — a fact that Tibbetts made clear should not be used to characterize all immigrants from south of the border.
The truth is that for all the “invasion” news items that gain traction on far-right media outlets, most people who live in rural areas and small towns know that life would be worse if it weren’t for immigrants.
In a new report, “Revival and Opportunity: Immigrants in Rural America,” the Center for American Progress (CAP) details how even though globalization, the Great Recession and the shift to an information economy have magnified an overall population decline in rural America, immigrants and refugees are fueling growth in some corners that is preventing school closures, the scaling back of health services and the dwindling of town commerce.
“In many rural communities, these new residents open small businesses, provide critically needed health care services, and supply labor for meatpacking plants, small manufacturers, dairies, fruit and vegetable farms, and other enterprises,” authors Silva Mathema, Nicole Prchal Svajlenka and Anneliese Hermann write. “While the stakes are high and the obstacles daunting, successfully integrating immigrants into America’s rural communities can bring large dividends.”
The report tallied that in 78 percent of rural places experiencing population decline, the loss would have been more dramatic if not for the influx of foreign-born residents. And in the 873 rural places that experienced population growth, more than one in five can attribute the entirety of population growth to immigrants.
And these new arrivals typically bring with them vitality, youth and, usually, a rock-solid belief in the attainability of the American dream.
The CAP report notes that some communities have proactive plans in place to integrate newcomers and allow them to capture the full set of benefits that a thriving and strong community brings. When they do, it can pay off.
A recent episode of the Latino political podcast “In the Thick” featured an interview with data researcher Ronny Rojas, who works on the new Univision documentary “America First,” which details the aftermath of the 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on the meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Rojas said that the town and surrounding area has lost almost 8 percent of its labor force.
But, Rojas added, in the last decade Postville has grown even more diverse. There is a burgeoning Jewish community, immigrants from Somalia and Russia are moving in, and the Hispanic population has increased by 80 percent.
“To be honest, I think people seem to get along really well in Postville,” Rojas said. “The people we talked to did not mention any racial incidents or confrontations due to immigration issues. … There is a Mexican restaurant in town playing musica nortena all day long, you can see white people having lunch. … There is an all-American bar, the only bar in town, where you can see immigrants being served without a problem.”
It’s not just some sort of taco halo effect. The Des Moines Register recently reported that, “since the raid, the town’s school population has rebounded, the housing market has recovered and the community has healed and grown, becoming more active in immigration rights, residents said.”
And as the CAP report found, “Despite the challenges, these new populations have revived the town as new shops open and school enrollment increases. Although Postville had a small student body of about 750 students in 2016, 40 percent of its students spoke a language other than English, and students overall spoke about 14 different languages.”
From Brooklyn to Postville, and in countless other communities that have been dismissed as ghost towns, the ones thriving have approached the challenges and difficulties of integrating newcomers with a mindset of opportunity, not with fear.
When even the shattered, grieving father of a victim of an immigrant’s crime can sing the praises of the majority of his newly arrived neighbors, we need to stop and ask ourselves whether, as a country, we’re willing to take on the promise that immigrants represent.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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