Monday, November 14, 2011

Immigration and Small Town Life

The last great wave of immigration to America, the Italians and East Europeans who flooded across the Atlantic in the early 1900s, went mainly to cities. To find a Polish or Italian neighborhood, you go to New York or Chicago. But the current wave of immigrants from Mexico and central America are entering by a different route and ending up in different places. Following the pioneers of this wave, who picked crops and herded cattle, they are settling in small towns across America's farming regions. From Delaware to Alabama to California, the people working in slaughterhouses and chicken processing plants and canneries, and who drive the trucks and fix the tractors and do all the other jobs left in the agricultural sector, are largely Hispanic. This sets up a conflict in small towns that have always seen themselves as the heartland of America.

White Americans are moving away from small towns by the hundreds of thousands, and those towns that are not withering are mostly the ones that can attract Mexican immigrants. Like Ulysses, Kansas, its 6,000 people now half Hispanic, and no restaurants left except three run by Mexicans. In just the past decade the Hispanic population of the seven Great Plains states has grown by 75%, the overall population by just 7%.

One result of this is anti-immigrant politics. But another is towns competing for Hispanic immigrants, and a new surge of life into dying places -- new families, new businesses, new churches, vibrant communities instead of ghost towns.

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