Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Rural Communities Cope With Immigrants

June 4, 2007

Immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America, are here among us. Most estimates place the number at 12 million though some estimates range as high as 20 million. Relatively open borders and lax law enforcement are not stemming the tide of immigrants coming over the border.

This is what rural Midwest communities have been experiencing.

Who are they? In the Midwest, the first wave of workers were Hispanic. The second and third waves have been Asians from S.E. Asia - Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian.

The most recent immigrants have been economic and political refugees from Bosnia, Ethiopia, Sudan, West Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Many ethnic groups put down roots and become a permanent part of the community. When migrant whites become mobile, they usually stay mobile.

Communities may gear up for a certain size workforce but in reality, the demands for services may be even greater because of job turnover. Also new waves of immigrants keep coming and coming. Programs have to be maintained and repeated.

Many rural Midwestern communities find themselves coping with a rapidly changing community with cultural clashes and language barriers. New immigrants arrive with major health and dental problems. They need immunizations.

New immigrants have to learn the basics of American culture - things like needing a driver's license and not bribing policemen. The youth from big cities bring gang language and juvenile crime.

Families arrive practically destitute and they have many basic needs - clothing, furniture and decent housing. They live together in crowded conditions. Communities aren't ready for these changes. There is stress on relationships. Prejudice and racism are manifested.

Why do they come? A few years back, processing plant jobs used skilled labor and were among the highest paying jobs in the community. Since then, technological advances have made these jobs available to those who have lower skill levels who accept lower wages. In fact, consolidation within the meat processing industry has resulted in causing wages to be just above the minimum wage. Companies have a hard time finding local people willing to do this kind of work for the money involved.

For immigrants coming to this country, these processing plants are an attractive place to work. The incomes they receive are vastly superior to what they can get in their native lands. They also make do with a lower standard of living in our economy.

Companies actively recruit this labor force. Usually the first wave is young single men. Once they are established, their families come to join them. The community is surprised when their families show up. By word of mouth many more immigrant families hear about the opportunities and also come.

Food processing plants are usually the only draw - farm labor and service industries have a hard time filling their labor needs from the existing labor pool.

How the community responds. The first step - which is a huge help for local schools - is to set up an effective steering committee at the community level. A multicultural community committee can serve as a clearinghouse for problem-solving and meeting needs.

Churches and youth groups need a focal point where they can offer their services. Nurse practitioners, social service providers, teachers, court workers and others who see needs can get the committee and community involved in solutions. It can facilitate dialogue about concerns.

The steering committee helps arrange town hall meetings to educate residents on the pluses and minuses of change. Longstanding members of the community who themselves were immigrants can tell their stories to emphasize the immigrant roots of a previous generation of settlers. This committee also helps with community awareness and attitudes. It coordinates and helps distribute donated items to help families in need. It helps coordinate volunteers and interpreters.

Communities may have trouble making these committees truly multicultural. Members are usually white elites. However, immigrants can learn to feel comfortable in approaching the group with their needs.

Adult English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in the evenings and at the place of employment help adults make transitions. The company needs to provide adequate orientation on company rules and policies plus translators for on-the-job training, safety concerns and other work survival skills. The community can provide GED basic American-living skill classes for adults.

Problems at school. The first and largest problem to solve is the additional burden on the educational system. The biggest need is for ESL classes. Rural communities can be caught without having enough ESL teachers or interpreters.

Racism is magnified in schools when children verbalize things they hear from adults at home. Adults may have the good sense to keep their prejudices to themselves, but children don't. Tension and fighting may erupt between whites and a particular group or between youths from different immigrant groups.

Law enforcement has its hands full with disputes and conflict within ethnic communities. They have to deal with community residents who don't speak English and lack knowledge about local customs and laws.

Males from third world countries have trouble relating to females in authority positions - teachers, judges, social workers, principals, and job supervisors. Part of the cultural education children and their families learn is that females in authority have to be respected. Middle class values about equality of the sexes also may not fit an immigrant’s traditions of family life.

Today, many rural communities are being challenged in making a home for immigrant families. They are being forced to put their values about tolerance and charity to the test - not an easy thing to do in today’s world.