New Immigrants Deliver Opportunity, Challenges to Small Towns

Immigration is reshaping the landscape of rural America. A rapidly growing Hispanic population is driving the trend. New immigrants are offsetting population loss, a challenge faced by many small communities. 

In our home state of Nebraska, the Hispanic population will triple by 2050, accounting for 25% of the state population. More than 40% of this growth is happening in rural communities. The majority population in several Nebraska small towns has shifted to Hispanic.

Schuyler, Nebraska, a town of 6,000, is now 65% Hispanic. One local civic leader commented on the changes, “Our new neighbors are great! They are opening businesses, buying homes, and revitalizing our schools.” 

Javier Arizmendi, the new owner of The Schuyler Inn, and his wife took a leap of faith when they decided to buy the motel. “Investing in an industry that you are not familiar with can be challenging, but we have done the right thing and we are proud of our business,” says Arizmendi. 

We also see growing interest in farming from new immigrants. In the most recent Census of Agriculture, all categories of minority-operated farms increased. The number of Hispanic-operated farms grew by 21% nationwide.

Hugo and Reyna Escamilla farm near Cozad, Nebraska. As more of their friends and neighbors start farming, Hugo and Reyna see the opportunity for a new enterprise to process poultry grown by area farmers. 

The local stories comprise the national trend. Between 2000 and 2010, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 83% of rural population growth.

The changes are not without challenges for many communities. That is why the Center is working with community leaders and new immigrants in towns experiencing rapid demographic changes. We focus our efforts on two areas. 

Building inclusive and welcoming communities: We seek to bridge racial and ethnic divides by engaging a diverse set of residents in activities that build common purpose. New community gardens and business-to-business tours are two examples we have had luck with.

Inclusive communities are also ones with shared leadership opportunities. It often takes a deliberate strategy to ensure this happens as the demographics shift.

Small business development: Demand for small business services among new immigrants is exploding. New businesses lift the economic prospects of the community. This also sets new entrepreneurs on the path toward even greater community leadership.

The Center leads the nation in offering statewide Hispanic business development services. More than 4,000 Hispanic entrepreneurs have been through our training. We have also connected 50 of these entrepreneurs with over $1 million in business financing.

Community and civic leaders are pursuing similar strategies in small towns across the country. Is your town harnessing the power that comes from building a welcoming and inclusive culture?

Feature image: Hispanic farmers tour Garcia Farms to learn firsthand about opportunities in diversified farm production. | Photo by Wyatt Fraas