Immigrants Bring Rejuvenation to Many Small Towns

From the eastern tip of Long Island to Vermont and Iowa, big cities aren’t the only places attracting new American residents. In many cases, these new denizens carry with them economic renewal.

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My Manhattan friends were surprised when I chose to retire to Greenport, a knuckle on the finger of the North Fork of Long Island. Bordered by farms and vineyards to the east and west, Peconic Bay to the south, and the sound to the north, a village of 2,200 people seemed a strange choice. I had spent most of my adult life reveling in the color and chaos of the great city 100 miles away. How could the lure of the rural compete with that?

But competition wasn’t the issue. I wanted a little peace, a walkable downtown, a daily view of the yellow school bus trundling through the neighborhood, a smile of recognition at the supermarket. And I knew, from acquaintance with Greenport in a former life, that its fortunes had vastly improved from the 1970s, when it staggered through the days of sex, drugs and rock and roll without enjoying the associated excesses. It now boasted fine restaurants, beautiful parks, handsomely renovated old houses, and a carousel that delighted weekend visitors from “up-island.”

Revitalization of the village has several sources. A succession of progressive mayors got grants to clean up the center and develop a marina for Greenport’s deep-water port. Second-home owners returned to what had been, until the post-World War II, a lively summer respite from the Big Apple, less pricey and pretentious than the Hamptons. And to realize the ambitions of residents and officials came a new working class. Starting in the mid-1990s, Latinos—young families as well as single men looking for work—arrived to shape and sustain the new economy of the village by building and cleaning houses, repairing roads, working in restaurant kitchens, and landscaping gardens. Largely unauthorized immigrants from Mexico and Central America, they made up one-third of Greenport residents by 2010.

Author Diana R. Gordon.
Author Diana R. Gordon.

Patterns of immigration have changed in many ways since the great wave of the late-19th and early-20th century that brought Italians, Poles, and many others to till the fields, run the looms, and pave the roads—in effect, constructing the American century. Jobs for immigrants now tend to be in service (e.g., Greenport) and information sectors, rather than in manufacturing or agriculture. Immigrants from Latin America and Asia now vastly outnumber Europeans, who were the principal focus of immigration policy until 1965 legislation did away with an immigration system that favored them. And immigrants have gravitated to suburbs and small towns as well as to cities and border states.

It would be an exaggeration to say that today’s immigrants respond more to the charms of rural life than to those of the metropolis. But small towns and cities are coming into their own as desirable destinations, and often the result is new energy and improved economies for those communities. The nation’s oldest refugee organization, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, puts it this way: “Some of the most welcoming and best-suited places in the United States for the refugees and immigrants who settle here are the smaller cities and towns….[S]maller communities can offer services and opportunities not available or affordable in big cities.” The fortunes of the receiving communities may also improve; a recent study undertaken by the Daily Yonder found that individual incomes in rural counties rose as immigrant populations increased.

At first Greenport’s immigrants came because there was work and rental housing aplenty. Relatives and friends then joined the early arrivals, links in the migration chain that often binds an immigrant community. Family formation followed, with small children fending off the declining school population that, all over the country, beleaguers small communities with aging populations. Lacking health insurance for the most part, the newcomers have nonetheless found a cobbled-together health care system that meets most needs. Their traffic offenses bring them before local judges who often go easy on drivers who are prohibited by New York State law from getting licenses.

Diana R. Gordon's book Village of Immigrants.
Diana R. Gordon’s book Village of Immigrants.

Despite language barriers and seasonal, low-paid work many of Greenport’s Latino residents are moving beyond mere survival in the new land. They are “settling out” (the scholar’s term for their upward economic mobility) by starting small businesses—restaurants, landscaping companies, a barbershop—and sending their American-born children to college. A few young people who arrived in the U.S. as children have moved into the middle class as beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, President Obama’s program of work permits and temporary relief from deportation.

It would be easy to conclude that revitalization is possible only in small towns with amenities like Greenport’s beautiful bay and nearby opportunities for winetasting and pumpkin picking. But renewal has other sources in other parts of the country. Sometimes it’s a single industry that recruits workers. Poultry “processing”—euphemism for the unlovely slaughter and packaging of chickens and turkeys—provides jobs for immigrants throughout the Midwest and the South. Proving that opportunity and exploitation can converge, Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride, the two biggest chicken processors in the country (both of which have been sued for violating labor laws), employ more than 120,000 “team members” in low-wage jobs. We cannot know how many of those are held by immigrants, but many workers in poultry plants have also worked in agriculture, and in 2012, almost half of farmworkers were foreign-born.

Iowa is a special case in the flow of immigrants to rural areas. Labor needs in that very agricultural state coincided with the North American Free Trade Agreement’s displacement of rural workers in Mexico as heavily subsidized American corn came on the market. Accustomed to village life at home, many immigrants preferred small Iowa towns to big cities, according to Himar Hernández of the Iowa State University Extension. Sometimes recruited, sometimes following word of mouth, they stepped into the breach to work for the farms and slaughterhouses. As consumers, and later as entrepreneurs, they have given new life to blighted downtowns. West Liberty, Iowa, population 3,762 in 2013, home of a turkey processing plant, is an exemplar of this development. With 52.2% Hispanic residents and 25.6% foreign-born, the town boasts a dual-language program in local schools and a revived commercial district that is included in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2013 the mayor noted that “[I]f we didn’t have the Hispanic community here we’d have a lot more empty businesses downtown.”

Surely the influx of immigrants since 2000 helps explain the fact that the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector of the Iowa economy added jobs every year between 2006 and 2014, even during the national downturn.

West Liberty, Iowa. Photo by David Wilson/Flickr.
West Liberty, Iowa. Photo by David Wilson/Flickr.

Newcomers also flourish in Vermont, which is, along with Maine, the most rural state in the country, as defined by the percentage of the population outside of Census-designated “urban areas.” Here the recent immigrants are not undocumented peasants from villages in Mexico and Central America but refugees from Somalia and Bhutan and Bosnia, among others. Sometimes they are placed in the state by the federal government and sometimes they arrive from other parts of the U.S. to join relatives. The center of refugee activity is Burlington—not quite a small town with its 42,000 residents, but the hub of an area where refugees have started farms and other rural enterprises. The Association of Africans Living in Vermont (it serves non-Africans, too, despite its name) sponsors the New Farms for New Americans project, which provides training and technical assistance to very small-scale farms in plots on the outskirts of the city. Ten miles from Burlington, a group of men from Rwanda and Bhutan are raising and slaughtering bucklings (young male goats that are donated by dairy farms, where they are superfluous) to meet the demand for goat meat among refugees from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe—and, perhaps, soon from Americans acquiring a taste for it.

Presenting scenarios of immigrants moving into the East End of Long Island, rural Iowa, and Vermont as success stories is not to deny that tensions around their settlement in small towns exist, in those places and elsewhere. A few Greenport residents grumble that immigrants commit crimes, and the dual-language program in West Liberty has occasionally been controversial. The peaceful atmosphere for refugees in Vermont, attributable to welcoming officials and social service providers, may prevail, in part, because the state is relatively isolated, and many Vermonters haven’t the faintest idea that Africans are living there. But as multicultural America becomes a demographic inevitability, visible every day on our TV screens and in our classrooms, native-born rural residents seem likely to adapt as urban dwellers have—with acceptance and, in another generation, with inclusion.

 

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