Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Immigrants In Rural Communities: Who Are These People?

March 17, 1997

As rural states and communities plan for their economic survival, one common strategy is to encourage processing plants to come to their communities. Midwestern communities have found that these plants bring radical change - change for which they were not prepared.

A few years back, processing plant jobs were skilled labor and were among the highest paying in the community. Since then, technological advances have resulted in these jobs having lower skill levels and wages. In fact, consolidation within the meat processing industry has resulted in a downward pressure on wages to 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.

Who are they? In the Midwest, the first wave of workers has been historically Hispanic.The second and third waves are primarily Afro-Americans from the southern states and Asians from S.E. Asia - Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian. More recent immigrants have been economic and political refugees from Bosnia, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Caribbean, Central and South America.

Many ethnic groups will 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 about the basics of American culture - things like needing a driver's license and not bribing policemen. 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 changes. There is stress on relationships. Prejudice and racism are manifested.

How the community responds. The first step - which benefits the schools greatly - is to have an effective steering committee at the community level. A community multicultural 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 do 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. Chief among problems is the additional burden on the educational system. The first need is for ESL classes. Rural communities can be caught without 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 it 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 their traditions of family life.

Many rural communities are being challenged in making a home for their immigrant families. They are forced to put their values about tolerance and charity to the test.

Thanks goes to demographer Rogelio Saenz at Texas A&M University and rural sociologist John Allen at the University of Nebraska for their help and insight on immigrants in Rural America.