Bring on the immigrants

by Pete Letheby



Sometimes it’s all in the way you look at things. As many Great Plains and Midwest communities continue down the slippery slope of depopulation, they grasp for any kind of development. That’s why industrial livestock operations and corn ethanol plants are so popular these days.

Yet some of these communities already have a resource that could help stop the out-migration hemorrhaging and even give them a much-needed transfusion: Immigrants.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last year that Latinos open new businesses at three times the national average. What better way for stale Midwest communities to secure new enterprise? Latin American and east African immigrants are much younger than the present rural Midwest population. What better way to infuse youth and vibrancy into farm-dependent, aging Heartland communities? Latinos have fewer divorces and attend church in greater numbers than the U.S. average. Proportionately, there are more Latinos in the U.S. armed forces than any other ethnic group. Latinos also place a high priority on a family-friendly lifestyle. What could better complement the “family values” mindset of the rural Midwest?

Statistics show that Latinos, east Africans and other immigrant groups are increasingly attracted to non-metro areas and increasingly to states and cities that, a couple decades ago, had little ethnic diversity. For the first time in U.S. history, half of the country’s non-metro Hispanics live outside the five Southwestern states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado.

Sure, immigrants still populate areas that you’d expect, including Florida and New York. But many are demonstrating a desire to settle just about anywhere where there’s employment and welcoming communities. For example, the largest contingent of Sudanese immigrants in any state is in Nebraska, one of the last places you’d expect to find them.

From 1990 to 2000, the number of Hispanics in Sioux Falls, S.D., increased by 400 percent and is now around 6,000. In the last decade of the 20th century, Latino populations have nearly doubled, or more than doubled, in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, well above the national average. Admittedly, the percentages were low prior to 1990, but the increases are noteworthy. Grand Island, Neb., has a population of 45,000, at least a fourth of them Latinos and another 3 percent African or Asian. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 30 different languages are spoken in Hall County, Neb., which includes Grand Island, where I live.

Not every ethnically varied community will be a Taos or a Juneau, but the possibilities are real if rural communities seize them. Frequently it is food processing, manufacturing and construction jobs that initially attract minorities to rural communities. But the population metamorphosis often translates into expanded business and educational opportunities, and a new ambience rich in cultural diversity.

In Garden City, Kan., population 30,000, the Hispanic population grew from 14.5 percent in 1980, to 25.3 percent in 1990, to 43.3 percent in 2000. There are also African-American and Asian-American residents. Garden City experienced distinct growing pains, but the community has rallied, and, says a University of Kansas study, has been “transformed into a vibrant multicultural oasis on the central High Plains.”

So why are some Midwest communities so slow in rolling out the welcome mat? I think there’s a deeply rooted resistance to change, and there also remains a subtle racism that has pervaded the Midwest since the original settlers broke land. Osha Gray Davidson pointed it out nearly two decades ago in “Broken Heartland,” and it holds true yet today: “The Heartland has a dirty little secret. Beneath the warm smiles and bland platitudes about ‘simple folk’ and ‘real values’ lies the same racial and ethnic intolerance that blights American society elsewhere.”

Indeed, in a 2006 Nebraska Rural Poll conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, only 31 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that new residents who move into their community improve the quality of life. When confronted with diversity, some Midwesterners see disarray and obstacles. Nonetheless, it is diversity that offers locals a chance to halt or reverse the stagnation that plagues much of the region.

In its publication, “A Rural Service Provider’s Guide to Immigrant Entrepreneurship,” the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration laid out some sound advice for changing Midwest communities: “New immigrants have begun to fill gaps in rural streetscape, populate area schools and tenant vacant housing. These new residents are largely unknown and unacknowledged …. Yet these new immigrants represent a wealth of talent, passion and entrepreneurial zeal that could help revitalize rural America.”

If only we look at it that way.

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org. He is a journalist in Grand Island, Nebraska. © High Country News