November 7, 2016 | By Sara McElmurry

Addressing Rural America’s Immigration Paradox

Eye-opening new analysis from The Wall Street Journal shows that immigrants and refugees are most maligned in rapidly diversifying rural Midwest—the very communities that arguably depend the most on their presence.

Arcadia, Wisconsin, the stagnating dairy town profiled in the piece, exemplifies the challenges rural residents face in accepting newcomers as economic lifelines instead of cultural threats. It also epitomizes the urgent need for immigrant integration efforts to take the sting away from demographic change.

Arcadia’s local economy depends on its dairy farms, and, as of late, those same farms depend on foreign-born labor—mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America—to stay in business. Immigrants have flocked to the town to work, offsetting the loss of native-born residents and filling the resulting gaps in the workforce. The town, nearly all white in 2000, is now more than one-third Latino.

Some local residents have had a hard time managing this change, as the Journal article showed. They grumbled about the “way things have changed” in the town, “noisy” parties with Spanish-language music, and how local schools are “unfairly” accommodating students from migrant families. Local leaders responded with policies designed to maintain the status quo: a proposal declaring English the town’s official language, laws limiting the display of foreign flags, and housing rules aimed at Hispanic tenants.

Ultimately most of these measures did not find support, which may be because alienating newcomers is not a sound long-term policy. The future vibrancy of rural America depends on its ability to successfully integrate this new demography.

Integration is long, hard work, but there’s good news for rural communities with so much at stake in getting this right.  Research suggests that small towns may have an innate advantage over their urban counterparts when it comes to successful integration, advantage rooted in their size itself. Whereas the large numbers of immigrants in urban melting pots can create isolating ethnic enclaves, the comparatively limited public infrastructure of rural life promotes interaction and integration. A town’s residents shop at the same grocery store because, often, there is just one grocery store. Their children enroll in the same school—the only school. New neighbors attend the same house of worship; they picnic in the same parks.

This constant interaction causes short-term friction and discomfort, but in the long term proximity fosters integration, even though many services designed to help integrate immigrants—ESL courses, civics workshops, entrepreneurship resources—are largely lacking in rural communities. And it explains how today’s immigrants, particularly those in these “new gateways” are integrating at least as quickly as—if not quicker than—previous waves of immigrants.

Local governments are thus well-positioned to usher along interaction and integration, and communities across the Midwest have emerged as leaders in this space. Examples of promising practices that can readily translate to rural communities include:

  • A series of cultural awareness events that unite immigrant and native-born residents in Grand Island, Nebraska.
  • Community conversations that strengthen relationships between immigrant-owned businesses and neighborhoods in Dayton, Ohio.
  • A program that engages long-term resident volunteers in personally welcoming new arrivals in Minneapolis.
  • A growing database of volunteer interpreters in Columbus, Ohio.

 

The urgency of embracing change is not unique to Arcadia. Large inflows of immigrants and refugees have brought demographic vitality, lower rates of unemployment, and wage growth to languishing rural communities across the country.

So in these same places, where Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant platform has gained traction—Trump won primary victories in 73 percent of counties where diversity doubled since 2000, and 80 percent where it rose by 150 percent—local governments should make immigrant integration a priority.

Integration starts when rural residents understand an urgent reality: embracing demographic change is perhaps the only way their rural way of life can stay the same. 

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