Talking Points

Immigrants are keeping rural America alive

The old cliché is that immigrants come to the United States to do the jobs Americans won't do. In reality, they're often here to do the jobs that Americans aren't around to do — at least in the rural parts of the country.

Last week's 2020 census results showed that the country's urbanization is continuing apace: While cities and metropolitan areas are growing, rural areas are emptying out. In my home state of Kansas, 80 of 105 counties lost population in the last decade; next door, in Nebraska, only 24 of 93 counties added people. This is having obvious political ramifications — 90 percent of the counties nationwide that lost population voted for Donald Trump. "Blue America is driving America's population growth," Slate's Jordan Weissman wrote over the weekend.

But if rural America contains Trump's most fervent backers, it is also the part of the country that might be harmed most by his anti-immigration policies. The census results also show it is immigrants who are keeping the population of many rural regions from collapsing outright — and who end up doing the work that keeps many of us fed. As the Associated Press reports, "population gains in many rural areas were driven by increases in Hispanic and Latino residents, many of whom come as immigrants to work on farms or in meatpacking plants or to start their own businesses."

"In the rural areas, if you didn't have the Latino growth, employers would be struggling even more just to fill those positions," one expert told AP.

If immigrants have kept rural America alive, they haven't always seemed welcome. In 2018, the only polling place in Dodge City, Kan. — a meatpacking town in the western part of the state — was moved outside city limits, in what was seen as an attempt to limit the influence of Latino voters. In 2016, the FBI arrested three men in nearby Garden City for a plot to bomb an apartment complex populated by Somali immigrants. And those meatpacking workers were often treated as expendable during some of the worst waves of the COVID pandemic.

The latest census results, though, suggest the country's rural regions need immigrants to continue to survive and thrive. For that to happen, though, Red America's politics will need to change.