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Immigration offers lifeline to rural America

Monday, October 3, 2016

Many small, rural towns in the United States saw their populations dwindle during the last few decades of the 20th Century. The farm crisis and growth of service industries drove young people into larger cities to find jobs and greater opportunity. Meanwhile, members of the older generation are aging, and will eventually leave (or have left) the workforce.

Such attrition left small towns with boarded-up businesses, little or no job markets and lacking in basic human services. Residents of rural communities often had to drive considerable distances to work, to grocery stores or to even see the nearest physician. Hospitals and schools consolidated or simply closed as the tax base dried up and no incentives existed to keep skilled workers, like doctors and nurses, in the communities.

Since the late 1990s, however, in many places in rural America, this trend began to reverse – slowly, at first, but with increasing momentum as the 21st Century got underway. How did these towns regain their vitality? Immigration.

Immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America account for the largest share of population growth outside non-metropolitan areas in the U.S. Some communities, in fact, have seen their Hispanic populations burgeon from less than 5 percent to nearly half of the total populace. While this influx of new culture may once have led to friction, a 2012 study found that these communities have a great deal to gain when new immigrants arrive.

Initially drawn to the areas for jobs working on farms or in other agribusinesses, such as processing or meat packing, immigrants stay on and establish roots in their communities. They have children and lower the average age of the population. Businesses are started or reopened to serve the growing community, which, in turn, jump starts the economy.

The improved economy allows for improved and more accessible services. Communities can establish clinics and schools and are able to pay for physicians, nurses and teachers. In many towns, older – often white – community members are aware of what immigration has done for their towns and embrace the change rather than seeing them wither and die on the vine.

An example used by the study’s authors is St. James, Minnesota, a town of about 5,000 residents, more than a quarter of which is now Hispanic. Recognizing what the influx of new residents, largely in the 1990s, could do for the community, local leaders created a plan to accommodate the demographic change. Schools and social service agencies improved accessibility by adding staff with Spanish language skills and increasing English-as-a-second-language learning opportunities in the area. A downtown area that was once deserted is now bustling with businesses, many of which are owned by immigrants.

St. James is just one example of how immigration has helped revitalize parts of the rural United States. Comprehensive immigration reform should take into account the economic benefits immigrants bring to rural communities. Economic development and other incentives could be used to connect small towns with immigrant populations and help to make rural America great again.

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