Modern Immigration – New Rural “Ellis Islands”
In the past four decades, there has been an explosion of immigration to the United States and the rates of immigrant population increases have been highest in rural America. Some counties in rural areas have seen immigrant population increases of over 1,000 percent, and those increases have resulted in questions of community identity, misunderstandings between long-time white residents and mostly Hispanic immigrants, and a political debate that even impacted the 2008 presidential race.
“Between 1990 and 2000, the immigrant population grew faster in nonmetro [rural] counties (76 percent growth) than in metro counties (58 percent). By 2000, more than 1.4 million foreign-born persons lived in rural America.” Those figures are according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau numbers by the Housing Assistance Council, a Washington DC advocacy group pushing affordable housing for the rural poor.
The group’s 2007 study Immigration and Housing in Rural America also found that “rural immigrants have higher poverty rates [and] lower incomes … than their urban [immigrant] counterparts.”
Rural America was one of the most homogenous places on earth before this latest wave of immigration. For instance, as we’ve seen, Nebraska farmers are 99.3 percent white. But, more and more, Hispanic workers are the ones who process the meat that farmers produce. Without those workers, the meat would not reach market and the incomes of farmers would be substantial less. Yet, the influx of Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic immigrants into formerly all-white communities has unsettled those older immigrant groups.
The reason that immigrants are moving to rural communities is that the meatpacking plants moved there first. Beginning in the 1950s, packers began closing their urban plants and opening new ones closer to their supply of cattle, hogs, and chickens. There were several factors driving these changes.
- Consumers began demanding more convenient, pre-packaged food; instead of buying whole chickens, for example, they wanted just the breast.
- Consumers wanted cheaper food, and the chicken industry discovered they could drastically reduce costs by integrating vertically – that is contracting with growers for a specific number of birds on specific dates with all nutritional inputs controlled down to ounces of feed. Other livestock packers learned the lessons of the poultry packers quickly. Packers found it was easier to control their supply of animals by moving their plants closer to the producers.
- Urban plants had long been unionized; rural areas were not and so the packers could pay workers less.
- Urban plants were subject to stricter environmental concerns than rural ones.
- Refrigerated trucks got bigger and better, so it was cheaper to ship the processed meat to urban market than it was to ship live animals to urban stockyards and packing plants.
The problem was that, despite an economic slowdown during the 1980s, there weren’t enough unemployed laborers left in the rural communities to meet the demand for workers at the new plants.
Lourdes Gouveia (right) is a rural sociologist and professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has studied the influx of new immigrants. “I think the meat packing managers and owners knew well that this [lack of local labor] was an issue,” she says. “There was a lot of talk initially about housewives or farmwives, unemployed farmers especially as we entered the farm crisis” providing the labor force.
Lourdes studied in detail what happened in Lexington, Nebraska, when a Sperry-New Holland farm implement plant was closed and the community recruited IBP to convert the building into a meat processing plant. She saw IBP quickly hire recruiters who advertised for workers along the California and Texas borders and even in Mexico and Latin America. “Immigrant labor is the primary and probably only labor force that can supply the thousands of workers that are needed.”
“It’s extremely simple,” Lourdes says, “We have a state that went through a farm crisis. We invited immigrants to come as a way of resolving part of our farm crisis. Immigrants are human beings. They have children. Guess what, there is no visa program that the federal government has established that allows the kind of workers that we need in Nebraska to be here legally… And so that becomes really the impetuous for the very large new wave of migration of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, primarily at the beginning of the 1990s. One that continues today.”
In Nebraska, the Hispanic population increased by 165 percent between 1990 and 2000. By 2005, the minority population in Nebraska reached 15 percent, and Hispanics passed African-Americans as the largest minority group.
One writer – Bobbi Bowman, the Diversity Director for the American Society of Newspaper Editors – called Iowa and Nebraska “the Ellis Islands of the Midwest.”
Just as the original Ellis Island welcomed immigrants to America imperfectly – sometimes with open arms, sometimes with prejudice – this new wave of immigration has been greeted imperfectly. We’ll explore some of those issues and dynamics in this section of the web site.