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Immigration: Driver of rural development in the U.S.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Historic images of immigration often depict Europeans stepping off ocean liners and on to New York’s Ellis Island. Textbooks taught us that the Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other immigrants went on to form their own ethnically-distinct, urban neighborhoods. What is often overlooked, however, is that groups of immigrants were – and still are – the driving force behind rural communities in the United States.
The story of immigration in the U.S. is largely one based on discrimination. First, it was European discrimination against Native Americans in order to control the vast lands and natural resources in what would become the continental United States. Then, immigrants who had arrived earlier discriminated against newer, or later-arriving immigrant groups. This latter kind of discrimination is still evident today, most obviously in the political rhetoric surrounding the current nomination process.
Immigrants seeking to escape such discrimination, in large part, settled the part of the country West of the Appalachians.
The first wave of immigrants to the central U.S. was comprised of German and Irish Catholics, who encountered formal, institutionalized hatred based on their religious beliefs. The Know Nothing political party of the 1850s, in fact, was formed on an anti-immigration, specifically anti-Catholic, platform.
The next group of immigrants to stake out rural communities was the Scandinavians, particularly from Norway and Sweden, who, in the post-Civil War years, were shunned in the bigger Eastern cities, for which they had little taste anyway. Seeking landscapes that reminded them of their homelands, where the immigrants could use the farming and fishing skills they had, many Scandinavians settled across the Upper Midwest.
This trend continued well into the 20th Century, with subsequent groups of less-established immigrants from increasingly farther East – Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia – seeking fortunes away from the ethnically entrenched neighborhoods of Eastern Cities.
Today, immigrants are not so much establishing rural communities as rescuing them. Descendants of the Europeans who founded the small communities across rural America fled rural areas to seek opportunities in larger cities. This left many rural areas stagnant or even dying: declining populations, boarded-up businesses, dwindling job opportunities.
The post-1965 immigration boom has been largely Latin American and Asian. Just as the Europeans who founded rural communities did, this latest wave of immigrants saw opportunity in rural America. With a combination of agricultural skill and entrepreneurial spirit, Latin and Asian immigrants have brought many small towns in the United States back from near-oblivion, with restored vitality and commerce.
Where such immigrants may have faced discrimination just a few decades ago, they are largely seen as a blessing today. That is not to say discrimination does not still exist against new immigrants to the rural U.S., but increasingly, their economic and social impact is appreciated. Demonstrably, the benefits of even lower-skilled immigrants to rural communities can have an important impact in the United States. And, as proven time and time again in this country, wholesale discrimination against immigration is simply shortsighted.

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