Rural America’s Revival Depends on Immigrants

9 minute read
Leonard's Substack is Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture and he lives in Knoxville, Iowa

At the Iowa State Capitol during the legislative session in early March, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, I encountered a group of teenage girls from other countries on a State Department sponsored tour. I asked them where they were from, and when one girl said she was from Ukraine, I naively asked, “Is your family O.K.?” Her shoulders drooped, and she replied, irritated. “They are SAFE, but they are not O.K. No one in Ukraine is O.K.”

Over 6.6 million Ukrainians have fled their country, and here in Iowa, we can help them. We can help them just as Iowa Governor Robert Ray helped lead the nation in resettling refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia after the Vietnam War. The present Governor Kim Reynolds and President Joe Biden agree on very few things, but they do agree we need to help resettle Ukrainians.

Ukrainians are already here in some numbers, with most of them coming over after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. They are valued members of our communities. They operate small businesses, work in factories and farms, in real estate and construction, just like the rest of us. For years my barber was Ukrainian. A woman from Ukraine who has a shop on the square speaks with pride about her two sons currently serving in the U.S. Air Force.

My rural Iowa county, population about 33,000, and other rural counties across America, are positioned to do what we can to help not only Ukrainian refugees, but others. It’s a stain on America that while we are willing to help Ukrainian refugees, because they look like the majority of our population, but aren’t as welcoming to Syrian, African, and those coming from south of the border because they don’t.

We should help and welcome refugees because we can, but also, if you need a cold-hearted economic reason, because we need them. Iowa Workforce Development reports that in December of 2019, Iowa had 60,000 job openings, and 49,000 unemployed people. The job openings have nearly doubled since then. In February of this year, our job openings had grown to 109,000 jobs open, with 59,500 people unemployed. Inviting immigrants, and having the support system in place to help them as they arrive, isn’t a cost, it’s an investment.

In the rural county where I live, we didn’t have enough workers to fill all open jobs before the pandemic began. A report from the Marion County Development office shows that we had 3.3% unemployment in March 2020. In our county there were 17,340 individuals working. There were an estimated 1,113 job openings, and 306 initial and continuing unemployment claims. Even if everyone on unemployment were forced to work, we would still need 807 more people to fill the open positions. Now, even with the ongoing pandemic, and the “great resignation,” our unemployment rate has dropped significantly. The latest numbers from April 2022 show unemployment is much lower than it was in 2020—2.5%—a drop of nearly a percentage point. We simply don’t have enough people in our county, or in the state to fill the open positions. One local manufacturer told me last week that all three shifts are in full operation for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, and that he desperately needs more workers. A friend who has a small construction crew tells me he is booked through next spring.

The story is the same in many parts of rural America, where most of America’s domestic production of food, fuel, and fibers such as cotton and wool, comes from. Much of this labor is seasonal. Without labor, companies die. While the entire country is suffering from a labor shortage, rural America is particularly hard hit, in part because many rural Americans are moving to larger metropolitan areas.

We need immigrants. Every rural manufacturing leader I have spoken with, regardless of party affiliation, wants immigration reform. They know immigrants can help solve their labor problems.

Read More: Why the Children of Immigrants Get Ahead

A solution to rural America’s labor woes lies with refugees and asylum seekers at our southern border, as well as from Ukraine, Afghanistan, and other troubled parts of the world. Refugees and asylum seekers are looking for economic opportunities and a better life. We need workers. The history of America is in a large part a history of displaced persons finding a better life here, and that needs to continue to be if we are to thrive in the future.

Immigration troubles at our southern border is a political football that undermines all immigration efforts. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley (R) has spoken out in favor of immigration reform that will allow more farm workers into the country, but he tells me that he believes that it will be very difficult to pass comprehensive immigration reform in Congress until our southern border is more secure. However, it’s not clear that many Republicans actually want the border to be secure, because an insecure border is too valuable for them politically. In fact, some Republican attempts at immigration reform only work to make the problem worse.

Ali Noorani, who recently left the position of Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, a D.C. nonprofit immigration policy organization to head the Hewlett Foundation’s U.S. Democracy Program, tells me that our border policies have failed, sharing the work of Marina E. Franco of Noticias Telemundo that “describes the Mexican drug cartels’ booming business of kidnappings and extortions, driven by the supply of vulnerable migrants “stranded from express deportations and quickly rejected asylum claims.”

Ten Republican governors traveled to Mission,Texas, on October 6 released their 10-point plan for border security. Noorani says, “The cartels must be thrilled: Nine of the plan’s 10 proposals would merely push migrants out of the already-elusive legal path to entry and into the hands of smugglers, coyotes and kidnappers. Through their inaction, Congress has outsourced our nation’s immigration system to the cartels. Organized crime, not our government, is determining who can enter the U.S.“

All of those governors were from rural states, one of those governors was our own, Iowa governor Kim Reynolds.

The politics need to be taken out of it. The contemporary math of immigration is that we have jobs, and refugees and asylum seekers want to fill them. Our labor crisis can be solved by helping those caught up in political and environmental crises around the world. Many are already here, showing that they can be contributing citizens to society. Approximately 73% of farmworkers are immigrants, and they are coming vaccinated.

Rural America needs these workers and many are coming with valuable backgrounds for our region. Rey Koslowski, a political scientist at the University of Albany who studies migration, tells me that many immigrants come prepared to work in rural America—particularly in agriculture—and are better prepared than most of us. He points out that according to the World Bank, “now only 1% of the U.S. workforce works in agriculture, while the top five foreign-born populations in the U.S. come from countries with comparatively much higher percentages of their workforces in agriculture: Mexico (12%), China (25%), India (43%), Philippines (23%), El Salvador (16%). The top five countries of origin of the refugees resettled in the U.S. between from over the last decade have even higher percentages of their workforces in agriculture: Burma (48%), Iraq (18%), Bhutan (55%), Dem. Rep. of the Congo (65%) and Somalia (83%).

There is also a humanitarian reason for increasing immigration. There were over 26 million refugees in the world prior to the crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan. Helping take on the challenges other parts of the world faces makes the rest of the world safer. That too is not a cost. It’s an investment.

I grew up doing construction, and I understand the fear some have of immigrants taking our blue collar jobs. They won’t. Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University tells me that most immigrants take jobs that most Americans don’t want to do, mainly because of language and training obstacles. In 2020, foreign-born workers were more likely than native-born workers to be employed in service occupations, natural resources, construction, maintenance, production, transportation, and material moving occupations. Foreign-born workers were less likely than native-born workers to be employed in management, professional, and related occupations. Industries that rely the most on immigrants are now facing some of the biggest labor shortages. These include construction, accommodations and food services, transportation, and warehousing.

Most Americans know immigrants likely won’t take their jobs. Pew reports that 77% of Americans believe that immigrants—particularly illegal ones—take jobs Americans don’t want.

There’s no better place to help grow our economy with immigrants than in rural communities like mine. Rural Americans, past, present, and future have always been immigrants, recognizing that those immigrants displaced and decimated the First Nations. But subsequent waves of immigrants haven’t created such historical displacements. Instead, we all find common cause as Americans, even as we still embrace our ethnic heritage. We need to lean into our identities and pride of heritage as coming from waves of immigration that made our country. And recognize that our future is our past. We need more immigrants not only to fill those jobs, but to help us build a better future for us all.

At Hoover High School in Des Moines, the boy’s soccer team is an inspiration. There are players from 15 different countries, most of them first generation students, on the 23-man-squad. America is a nation of immigrants, and they represent, in part, the latest wave. If we welcome them and others like them, and invest in them, when we surely need their contributions, we are committing to the historical truth that America is an idea. Not a people, or a race, as the worst among us falsely declare.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, as a bipartisan group of Senators gathered in April to begin discussions on immigration reform. Hopefully, they will recognize that we are at a fork in the road, and our choice is clear. We can build immigration policies that provide both the workers our economy needs and a humanitarian effort that serves us all.

The alternative is a dystopian fortress America that serves no one, and may destroy us all.

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