Rural America’s Revival Depends on Immigrants

AI was at the Iowa State Capitol shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in March. There, I ran into a small group of teenager girls representing other countries who were 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.”

More than 6.6 million Ukrainians fled Ukraine, and we in Iowa can help. Just as Robert Ray of Iowa helped to lead the country in returning refugees from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos after the Vietnam War, we can also help them. While President Joe Biden and Governor Kim Reynolds don’t agree on many things, they both agree that we must help the 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. Their contributions are highly valued by our communities. Like us, they run small businesses and work in construction and real estate. My barber has been Ukrainian for many years. The square is home to a woman who hails from Ukraine and boasts about her pride in seeing her children serving in the U.S. Air Force.

My small rural Iowa county of 33,000 people is ready to assist not only Ukrainian refugees but also other countries. 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.

While we should welcome and help refugees, we also need to be able to provide a reason for them. Iowa Workforce Development reported that there were 60,000 jobs available in Iowa and that 49,000 people are unemployed. Since then, the number of job opportunities has nearly doubled. The number of job openings in February this year was 109,000. 59.500 people were still 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. The Marion County Development office reported that there was 3.3% unemployment as of March 2020. There were 17340 people working in our county. An estimated 1,113 jobs were available and there were 306 ongoing and initial unemployment claims. If everyone who is unemployed were to be forced to work we still would need 807 additional people to fill those open jobs. 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. Last week, a local manufacturer informed me that all three shifts were operational for the first time in the aftermath of the pandemic. He is desperate to find more people. I was told by a friend of mine that he has booked his crew for 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. Many of these workers are seasonal. Businesses die without workers. Companies die when there is a lack of workers. Rural America is the hardest hit because so many people from rural America are now moving to bigger metropolitan areas.

We require immigrants. Every leader of rural manufacturing, no matter their party affiliation, supports immigration reform. These leaders know that immigrants are able to solve their labor issues.

Learn More: The Children of Immigrants Are Getting 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. Asylum seekers and refugees are seeking economic opportunities as well as a better lifestyle. Workers are needed. We need workers.

Political football at the border with Mexico is an obstacle to all efforts in immigration reform. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, R. has voiced support for immigration reform that allows more farm workers to enter the country. However, he told me that he thinks it would be difficult to pass comprehensive immigration legislation in Congress until our southern border becomes 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 reality, many Republican proposals for immigration reform will only make things 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 went to Mission (Texas) on October 6 and released their 10-point plan of 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 those governors hail from rural states. One of these governors is our Iowa governor Kim Reynolds.

It is time to get rid of politics. The current math behind immigration shows us that we have many jobs and that refugees and asylum seekers want to take them. We can end the labor shortage by helping people caught in environmental and political crises. They are many, and they show that they are capable of contributing to the society. Around 73% of farmworkers come from abroad, with many others coming to get vaccinated.

This is a critical need in rural America. Many of these immigrants have valuable background experiences that can be used to benefit the 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%). Burma (48%) and Iraq (18%) are the top three countries from which refugees have been resettled in America over the past decade. Bhutan (55%), Dem. Rep. of Congo (65%), Somalia (83%).

There are humanitarian reasons for increased immigration. Before the crisis in Ukraine/Afghanistan, there were more than 26 million people fleeing to their homeland. The rest of the globe is safer if we help other countries face the same challenges. This is also not an expense. It’s an investment.

As someone who grew up in construction, I can understand some people’s fear of immigrant workers taking over 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. The 2020 census showed that foreign-born workers had a higher chance of being employed in services, natural resources maintenance and construction. It was less common for foreign-born workers, than native-born, to work in related management and professional occupations. The most vulnerable industries are facing the greatest labor shortages. They include transportation and logistics, construction and accommodation, food and beverage services 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. The rural Americans of the past, present and future were immigrants. They also recognized that immigrants had displaced First Nations peoples. But subsequent waves of immigrants haven’t created such historical displacements. We all now find common ground as Americans and still hold on to our cultural heritage. It is important to be proud of our heritage and our identity as immigrants who have made this country possible. Recognize that the future of our country is also our past. More immigrants are needed not just to take over those jobs but to make our future better.

At Hoover High School in Des Moines, the boy’s soccer team is an inspiration. On the 23-man-squad, there are 15 players representing different countries. Many of these students come from first generation backgrounds. America is a nation made up of immigrants. They are the most recent wave. When we accept them and their families and make investments in them when they are most needed, it is a commitment to the historical truth America was an idea. The worst of us make false statements about America, claiming that it is not a nation or a race.

An eminent ray of hope is visible as bipartisan senators have gathered to start discussions about immigration reform in April. They will hopefully recognize we face a choice and make a decision. There are two options: build immigration policies to provide workers for our economy and aid those in need.

A dystopian America is the alternative, but it may be a fortress America which does not serve anyone and can even destroy us all.

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