Miriam Jordan, New York Times, August 10, 2021
Northwest Arkansas, where the Ozark Mountains rise, used to be a sleepy corner of the state, its only claim to fame that Sam Walton opened a five-and-dime in Bentonville and the first Walmart store in nearby Rogers — outposts that became the seeds of a global retail empire. The founders of Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt got their start in the same region, and a network of software companies moved in later to meet big business’s insatiable appetite for new technology.
But there were not enough locals to build the burgeoning economy. Answering the call to work in poultry production, trucking, construction and computer programming were legions of immigrants from El Salvador, the Marshall Islands, Mexico, India and elsewhere.
With tens of thousands of immigrants helping to catalyze its development, Northwest Arkansas has emerged as one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. Brimming with optimism, it is wooing newcomers with cheaper housing, a world-class art museum, upscale restaurants and forested bike trails.
But as much of the U.S. economy comes back from the coronavirus pandemic, the decades-long influx of immigrants that fueled such enormous expansion in places like Arkansas has begun to stall, posing challenges to the region and the country at large.
The United States over the past 10 years experienced the slowest population growth rate in eight decades, according to the 2020 census, because of plunging fertility rates and shrinking immigration.
The surge of unauthorized migrants from Mexico and Central America is testing the Biden administration, but images are deceptive: A vast majority of the single adults crossing the border to find work are quickly deported. And the flow of legal immigrants, whom Northwest Arkansas companies also heavily rely on, has fallen precipitously since the Trump administration clamped down on all kinds of immigration with the belief that it was displacing American workers.
Now, business leaders are hoping that President Biden will make good on his pledge to overhaul the immigration system and establish a legal pipeline for foreign workers to take jobs in Northwest Arkansas and other places that depend on them.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called on Congress and the White House to double the number of visas for high-skilled temporary workers under the H-1B program and also for seasonal workers in sectors like agriculture and meat production, another economic mainstay in this part of the country.
Lifting the ceiling on H-1B visas has been contentious, with some labor groups arguing that foreign workers imported from places like India and China displace Americans and drive down wages.
So far, Mr. Biden has concentrated on the surge of unauthorized immigrants at the southwestern border, and has not advanced measures to bring large numbers of new workers into the country.
The Census Bureau had projected that the number of immigrants in the United States would increase by 1.4 million from July 2017 to July 2019. Instead, it climbed by a net 400,000.
In Northwest Arkansas, 1,750 foreign newcomers arrived in 2016, accounting for more than 14 percent of all new residents, according to the census. In 2019, only 750 new immigrants settled in the area.
Immigrants have transformed the area not just culturally, but politically as well.
As of the 1990 census, Northwest Arkansas was 95 percent white. But by 2019, that figure had dropped to 72 percent, thanks to immigration. In Bentonville, 15.5 percent of the population was foreign born by then, and in Springdale, the state’s poultry center, 37.6 percent of the population was Hispanic.
Springdale voters in November sent the first Latino to the City Council, Kevin Flores, the son of a poultry worker; Bentonville elected the first Indian American, Gayatri Agnew, to the City Council. Even in the state’s Republican-majority legislature, there has been recognition of the role of immigrant labor. This year the General Assembly passed a bill to enable undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, often known as “Dreamers,” to obtain any professional or occupational license, one of the most liberal such laws in the country.
Bentonville’s Indian population grew by 361 percent between 2010 and 2019. By then, there were Indian cafes and supermarkets dotting strip malls. A gleaming Hindu temple opened for worship in 2012, and the city is erecting two cricket pitches for the 25-team local league.
Less than 20 miles south of Bentonville along Interstate 49, immigrants also transformed Springdale, the center of the state’s multibillion-dollar poultry industry, as tens of thousands of Latin Americans, both legal residents and undocumented, arrived.
Hispanic-owned groceries, bakeries and car repair shops popped up on Thompson Street. At Murphy Park, Hispanic families grilled carne asada and celebrated birthdays with piñatas.
Unease prevails among some longtime residents, like Debbie Eden, a business owner in Springdale. “Many immigrants are hard workers,” she said, “but they come in and undercut you working for less money.”