Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hispanic immigration into small town America

On May 12, 2008, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division raided Agriprocessors, Inc. slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa. This raid resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 undocumented workers, many who were of Hispanic origin. (See this post for more information about the raid). At that time, Postville’s population was around 2,200 people, which meant that a significant portion - likely 20% or more - of Postville's population was of Hispanic origin. I was very surprised that a rural town would be so diverse. When I think of small, rural, Midwestern towns, I usually assume the population lacks diversity. This compelled me to wonder whether Postville's demographics are unique, or if Hispanic immigrant into rural areas is common.

As it turns out, Hispanic immigration into rural areas has become commonplace. Between 1980 and 2010, the Hispanic population in the United States increased 246% from 14.6 million to 50.5 million. In the 1980’s, growth of the Hispanic population was concentrated in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, and Miami. However, since the 1990’s, the Hispanic population’s growth has been rapid in non-metropolitan communities, particularly in the Southeast and Midwest. For example, in Grady County, Georgia, the Hispanic population almost doubled to 2,282 within a six year span from 2000 to 2006. In Ulysses, Kansas, a town with a population of approximately 6,000, is now half Hispanic. In Beardstown, Illinois, approximately one third of their 6,000 person population is Hispanic. In 1990, 99.3% of Beardstown’s population was born in the United States; by 2009, 17.3% of the population was foreign-born.
It may seem odd that immigrants would want to move to small towns which were previously ethnically homogeneous. But the reason for moving into rural areas makes sense; in fact, it’s why many people would move to a foreign state and start over. Many Hispanics immigrated to rural areas for work, particularly to work in the food processing industry. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, numerous meat-processing plants were relocated to rural areas. These plants needed upwards of 2,500 workers, and immigrants were able to fill these low-skilled positions.
The results of immigration into rural communities have been mixed. A positive result is that immigration has offset the population decline that rural communities have experienced over the last few years. In a 2007 study, the Census Bureau estimated that 1,220 of the nation’s 3,141 counties have declined in population since 2000. Most of the losses occurred in rural counties in the Great Plains, northern and central Appalachia, and regions of the rural South and West. However, in 1,054 of those counties, the Hispanic population increased, which minimized overall population losses. Without the growth of Hispanics in these counties, the overall population loss would have exceeded 2.2 million. Such a great population loss can result in economic devastation of a town. For example, places such as Ulysses, Kansas previously had strips of abandoned stores and empty houses. However, immigrants have helped revitalize this town. Fore more thoughts on Ulysses, see this post.

Other natives from small towns feel immigration has had negative impacts, such as Hispanic immigrants taking jobs and sending money back to Mexico instead of investing in the community. Some natives just want to hold on to the idea of “how it used to be.” However, whether immigrants are “taking jobs” is debatable as it raises the question of whether these are jobs that locals would even want in the first place. Whether a community views immigration positively or negatively, the fact remains that Hispanic immigration has expanded from metropolitan areas to more rural areas, and diversity in these small towns is sure to increase as immigrants continue to build their homes and lives in these communities.


Charlie said...

I, too, originally was surprised to see that immigrant minority populations were moving into rural communities. When I think of immigrants, I think about urban areas, because most urban areas are diverse with various ethnic enclaves. However, when I think about it, minorities living in rural communities is nothing new. For example, in early 20th century, many immigrants from Japan settled in various plantations and farms in Central California. These Japanese immigrants continued to trickle in to supply the agricultural labor demand. However, after the Immigration Act of 1924, almost all immigration from Japan ceased.

David Gomez said...

Great post Tiffanie! The movie was eyeopening in more ways than one. One of my grandfather’s first jobs when he immigrated here was in a poultry factory. I think that the sentiment felt by some that hispanics are coming in and stealing jobs is misplaced. Rural areas have seen huge population decreases. And the jobs "taken" by the new immigrants as depicted in the film are certainly not ones coveted by locals.

Moona said...

Like Charlie and Tiffanie I was also surprised to see to see just how many immigrants were moving into rural communities. Partially because of the reasons already suggested, that rural areas are seen as more "conservative" and urban areas are seen as more diverse. But I was also surprised because of how much we here about rural areas lacking in jobs and economic growth and it seemed strange to me that immigrants, who are moving to the U.S. for some sort of economic improvement, would move to rural areas which are typically seen as the country's economically depressed regions, lacking in growth, in infrastructure and job opportunities. However, maybe these rural areas are just lacking in job opportunities that would be desirable to a U.S. citizen but that an immigrant, who is used to worse, would jump at the chance for.