Hispanic Population Gains Offset Rural Out-Migration, Keep Small Towns Bustling

My town, Fremont, Nebraska, population 26,000, has an aging population. We’re no different from many small and midsized towns across rural America. By 2017, 31% of Fremont’s residents are projected to be 55 or older.

A new population of Latino immigrants has been moving to the quiet town since the late 1970s. In 1990 there were only 223 Latinos in Dodge County, where Fremont is the county seat. That number increased to approximately 1,400 in 2000 and more than 2,500 in 2012.

Dodge County is similar to most counties on the Great Plains. Our report, Population Changes on the Great Plains, examined 2010 Census data for 10 states in the Great Plains and Midwest. We found the Hispanic population increased by over 55% from 2000 to 2010.

We also found that between 2000 and 2010, rural counties of the region lost a total of over 104,000 residents, but gained over 48,000 Hispanic residents. But for Hispanic population gains, rural population losses of the region would have been significantly greater – one and a half percentage points greater for the 2000 to 2010 decade.

Workers and families came to Fremont for jobs at the two meat packing plants south of town. Many are from small towns, farms, and ranches in rural Mexico and Central America. Fremont reminds them a little bit of home.

Entrepreneurship, the backbone of the rural economy, booms, and there are more people around to shop, go out to eat, attend church, and more young kids in our schools.

The contributions of immigrants are abundant in our small towns and rural communities, one of many reasons our flawed immigration system must be addressed. Organizations like the Nebraska Cattlemen, Farm Bureau, and Western Growers are calling for reform, citing lack of qualified workers and lack of workers who want to work seasonally on farms and ranchers. A functioning immigration system is necessary for supplying the labor needed to produce much of the food we enjoy and the crops that bring billions of dollars each year into our economy.

Recognizing the benefits immigrants bring to rural and small-town America, in 2013 our Board of Directors approved a resolution that affirmed support for comprehensive federal legislation to address immigration and to provide “an opportunity for undocumented immigrants who fulfill the requirements for obtaining citizenship to remain in the U.S. as citizens.”

That is why the recent action of the U.S. House of Representatives was so disappointing. As a last act before leaving for summer vacation, the House passed H.R. 5272, a bill that put the House on record squarely against comprehensive immigration reform. It would essentially end the current policy concerning deferred action for childhood arrivals that delays action against certain people brought to the United States as young children and who have abided by the law, attended school in the United States, and for all intents and purposes are Americans.

The United States admits only 10,000 manually-skilled workers on work visas each year, about one for every 100 immigrants who enter without a visa and find work. The door to legal, documented immigration used by earlier generations is today largely closed for all but the wealthy and well-educated.

These are not the values our country was built on, and they certainly are not the values our rural communities embody.

Feature image: I’m proud to bring my mom and my son to the new Pupuseria on Main Street in Fremont, Nebraska. | Photo by Virginia Meyer