Immigration as a Community Lifeline

Art Cullen writes Help wanted: Rural America needs immigrants:

President Trump argues that keeping immigrants and refugees out of our country is a matter of vital national security. He has made it his campaign thesis and shut down the government over it. Here in Storm Lake, Iowa, where the population is about 15,000 and unemployment is under 2 percent, Asians and Africans and Latinos are our lifeline. The only threat they pose to us is if they weren’t here.

That’s been the case for years all over rural Iowa and southern Minnesota, in the heart of the Corn Belt, where anyone who wants a job cutting hogs or laying block or working as an orderly can get one.

One part of the rural condition in American today is that, after college, our young people go to Des Moines or some city beyond for a job in finance or engineering that simply doesn’t exist in the old, county-seat towns of 5,000 people. “Everybody has to go someplace else,” Iowa State University regional trade economist Dave Swenson says of the youth exodus. “There isn’t a Plan B or Plan C.”

As rural counties are drained of young people with higher educations, immigrants flow into the vacuum. The influx began 40 years ago and continues today. First, Laotians from Thai refugee camps (they fought alongside us in Vietnam) came to Iowa in the 1980s. A land debt crisis later that decade blew up the family farm and foreclosed the future of so many young people and small businesses. The farm boys who once raised hogs by day and worked the night shift at the packing houses lit out for Texas and the oil rigs. Young Latino men, mainly from the Mexican state of Jalisco, came in to work the meatpackers’ kill floors. Now, the pigs are raised in huge confinement buildings, not family farms, and Latinos keep them clean.

(Note: Art Cullen is the editor of the Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa. He also recently wrote the book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.”)

Here one sees a rural community’s challenge: it cannot survive productively without newcomers, but there’s resistance to newcomers who don’t think, sound, or look like the old-timers in these towns.

Even in small towns, there’s a futile defiance in resisting the free movement of labor, capital, and goods.  Subsidies, regulations, and prohibitions: they’re nothing against the collective energies of tens of thousands that reward the free & creative and punish the restrictive & controlling.

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