Future Arrives to Diversify Small-Town USA

Maribel Hastings, National Journal, May 18, 2012

When an unexpected Midwestern monsoon hits, there’s nothing like waiting out the storm while sipping horchata and listening to some good mariachi. Welcome to Mexico Antiguo, a restaurant on Main Street in Marshalltown, Iowa.

At Postville High School, 133 miles away, a photo on display in the hallway shows a group of elegant youths of obviously European descent: the graduating class of 1903. The cloud of white faces no longer resembles the students who stream out of the school at the end of the day. In Postville, Iowa, population 2,227, one-third of the residents are now Hispanic, and the school reflects the town’s diversity.

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By now, many Americans are familiar with the long-range projections that mark America’s transition into a world nation: By 2023, ethnic minorities will represent a majority of the under-18 population; by 2050, minorities will represent a majority of the entire population.

Over the past several decades, this powerful current has infused new energy and challenges alike into metropolitan areas that have long been magnets for immigration, including New York and Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix, Dallas and Denver. But increasingly, this tide of change is spilling over into places that previously had not been shaped by diversity. While almost 50 percent of U.S. Hispanics live in 10 large metropolitan areas, almost two-thirds of the past decade’s Hispanic population growth occurred outside of those areas.

This is bringing propulsive ethnic and racial change, with all of its opportunities and complications, to places not used to it. While there’s evidence that the recession has cooled the Hispanic demographic explosion in places like Charlotte, N.C., and Provo, Utah, as jobs have been lost in cyclical sectors such as construction, that is almost certainly more a pause than a reversal. The basic trend toward new faces in new places seems irreversible: From 2000 to 2010, Hispanics accounted for at least 40 percent of the population growth in half of the 50 states. It’s probably not a surprise that minorities represent a majority of the elementary and secondary school children in Miami-Dade County and Los Angeles, but now they constitute 30 percent in Lincoln, Neb.; 50 percent in Des Moines, Iowa; and 53 percent in Salt Lake City. {snip}

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The opportunities for cultural collision are many: fear of the unknown (especially of other races and languages) or of losing community identity; individual and collective prejudice; political opportunism; economic worries; and, in many cases, the sheer shock of the new. Many long-term residents assume that whites and minorities are engaged in a zero-sum competition for jobs; others are anxious over minority use of social services, or wary of spending public money on students who are still learning English.

As more communities wrestle with these changes, it remains an open question whether they will produce a new harmony or a contentious cacophony. The one certainty is that demography will provide no respite: The growth and dispersion of the minority population will remain one of the defining characteristics of American life for decades.

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On first impression, it doesn’t look like anything has changed in Iowa. White residents are still as common as corn here, accounting for 91 percent of the state’s slightly more than 3 million people, according to the 2010 census. Statewide, Hispanics still represent only 1 in 20 residents. But over the last decade, Iowa’s white population actually contracted by 1 percentage point, while its Hispanic population increased by 2.3 percentage points.

That’s been enough to alter the look not only of Des Moines, the state capital, but even small towns, such as Marshalltown, population 27,552, and even smaller Postville. The ensuing changes have resulted in inevitable collisions—the growing pains of any community forced to adapt to change and integration.

The Hispanic share of Marshalltown’s population has almost doubled over the past 10 years to 24 percent. More than 42 businesses here are Hispanic-owned. For the past two decades, Hispanics have been drawn to Marshalltown by jobs in meat-processing and -packing plants, farms, and dairies. In 2006, the community found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight when Immigration and Customs Enforcement federal agents raided a Swift & Co. meat-packing plant here and arrested nearly 100 of its workers as undocumented workers.

From that wrenching experience, it would be easy to assume that the presence of Hispanics and other minorities has brought nothing but tension. The reality is more complex.

The first wave of immigrants to Marshalltown was men who arrived on their own during the late 1980s and early 1990s to work in the meat plants. The arrival of significant numbers of unattached men, who looked different and spoke differently than the longtime residents, generated predictable tension. This eventually gave way by around the turn of the century to the arrival of entire families—not just from Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Latin America, but Hispanic families from other states. By now, many of Marshalltown’s Hispanics say they have lived in the state for more than a decade.

This influx has been felt most profoundly in the churches and the schools. Sister Christine Feagan directs the Catholic Church’s Hispanic ministry in Marshalltown’s St. Mary’s Parish. The very existence of her job is a testament to change, but she can measure it even more precisely. “I use the parish as a gauge,” she says. “When I arrived in 1999, there was one Mass in Spanish and three in English. Now, we have three Masses in Spanish, and 70 percent of the parish is Hispanic.”

In the schools, the transition is almost as powerful. Twenty years ago, 98 percent of Marshalltown Community School District students were white. Minorities now represent 54 percent of the total enrollment, with Hispanics alone (43 percent) nearly equaling whites (46 percent). Last year, Marshalltown High School’s prom king and queen were Hispanic.

As Hispanic students, many of them immigrants, began to flood into the school district at the beginning of the decade, the English as a Second Language program became a lightning rod for controversy. In 1992, 75 students were classified as English Language Learners. Now 1,735 students speak one of 30 languages besides English, and the district has the third-largest population of ELL students in the state.

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Salvador Lara, a 25-year-old born in Mexico, graduated from Marshalltown High School in 2006. He remembers edginess between whites and Latinos, but he says it gradually dissipated. He was part of the group Building Bridges, which was founded to improve communication among ethnic groups.

Conflict, he says, has eased in part because “Hispanics no longer have the worst jobs or the poorest houses. It demonstrates that we’re reaching a level that’s helping us be more accepted. We’ve contradicted a lot of stereotypes about Hispanics.”

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The reality is that without the population growth that the immigrants provided, Marshalltown faced “very definite population and economic decline,” says Mark A. Grey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa and the director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration.

Ken Anderson, president of the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “What has evolved over time is the realization of our indigenous population that they [Latinos] are in fact an economic force for everyday living,” he says. “And I think that it took us a while to roll that out.”

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Concern about illegal immigration remains a burr in Iowa—not as inflamed as in places like Arizona and Alabama, but persistent and raw in some quarters.

“You hear around that they need to go home, they need to learn English, they are illegals, we need an Arizona type of law,” says Larry Ginter, a 73-year-old retired farmer who was born and raised in the nearby town of Rhodes. “We just push back. Some of us understand why so many of the folks are up here. But some people don’t. I try to change minds, but sometimes it’s difficult.”

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{snip} The experience of Prince William County, Va., shows the opportunity for strain.

The county has been a destination for immigrants since the 1980s, when many fleeing civil wars in Central America settled in the Washington area. Tensions always existed, according to some residents, but rekindled when the economic boom of the 1990s brought another wave of immigrants attracted by the availability of jobs and the low cost of living.

Tension rose again after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and heightened further when housing prices collapsed in 2007 and the overall economy soon followed. Rising unemployment rates and foreclosures swept aside whatever grudging tolerance residents had developed for the new arrivals.

The county was thrust into the center of the national immigration debate in 2007, when its Republican-majority County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that allowed police to ask about the immigration status of anyone they suspected to be undocumented.

The bitter debate over the measure produced tensions, and Hispanics left en masse for neighboring counties. A University of Virginia study estimated that between 2,000 and 6,000 people packed up. Houses and apartments were abandoned, the local economy slowed, and some small-business owners were forced to shut down entirely. (Even so, the Hispanic population in Prince William grew from 8 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2010.)

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{snip} The [immigration control] effort also drew on anxieties about the changing face of the student body in the public schools, the offering of English as a Second Language courses, and the availability of social services for immigrants—services that undocumented immigrants cannot access, but legal residents and citizens can. Fear of crime also fueled the move, although a University of Virginia study found that fewer than 2 percent of those arrested in the county in 2008 (after the law was implemented) were undocumented immigrants. Finally, there was the political dimension: The president-at-large of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, Republican Corey Stewart, ran for reelection on a promise to combat undocumented immigration.

When Prince William’s economy began to feel the effects of the anti-immigrant ordinance, pressure grew to amend it. That, combined with the potential for civil-rights violations and racial profiling as well as the high cost of implementing the law and defending it in court, led the board to narrow the ordinance in 2008 to apply only to those who had already been detained. But today, Stewart says flatly that the law “was not a mistake.”

“There were some initial impacts on some retail, especially restaurants in areas where there was concentration of illegal immigrants,” he admits. “However, the economy has exceeded all expectations in economic growth. The Latino population has not gone down. It has stabilized, with more young families with children and fewer of the single men that were illegal immigrants. It has been a very good policy.”

The gulf between the perspective of Stewart and his supporters, who believe the law has helped the county, and Hispanics and others who view it as discriminatory, shows no sign of narrowing. {snip}

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The demographic trends transforming American communities across the country have triggered a process of adaptation—often forced, often tentative, and more painful in some places than others.

The growing presence of minorities in even the least-expected places, sustained by immigration and high birthrates, continues to test the capacity of communities and of the country itself to absorb the initial shock.

But so far, experience suggests that the longer communities are exposed to newcomers, the more likely initial resistance will yield to some measure of tolerance and understanding. In most cases, once the long-standing residents accept that change is inevitable and that they need minority and new residents to ensure the future of their economy and community, the choice becomes evident.

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As the nation navigates these unsettled waters, the most hopeful sign is the proliferation of grassroots groups that have persuaded longtime residents to accept newcomers, if not out of genuine appreciation for diversity, at least from an awareness of economic necessity. One Iowa farmer offered what might be the best advice for a nation still adjusting to this epic infusion of diversity: “We have to agree to row in the same direction to stay afloat, because we’re all in the same boat.”

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