December 14, 2017
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Trump immigration policies can’t make this Minnesota town white again

By Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg View
Jose A. Iglesias | Miami Herald | TNS | BDN
Jose A. Iglesias | Miami Herald | TNS | BDN
Foreign nationals at the Krome detention center, where those with criminal records and deportation orders are often held.

Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, 35, a mother of two American children, was arrested last week in Phoenix and deported to Mexico, which she left as a 14-year-old to travel illegally to the United States. There was no public-safety rationale for her removal. But the president who defrauded students, cheated contractors and shattered democratic norms on his way to the White House is apparently a stickler for following rules.

The deportation, over protests, was another shot in the federal government’s new war on immigrant communities. Its reverberations extend far beyond the 20 metro areas, including Phoenix, that are home to the majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Guadalupes can be found in unexpected places.

Worthington, Minnesota, is a prairie town of 13,000 near the southwest corner of the state, just north of the Iowa line. It has a thriving little downtown spotted with restaurants and stores, and, from June to October, an open-air farmer’s market in the old Campbell Soup Co. parking lot.

City administrator Steve Robinson, a Worthington native, said that his 1978 graduating high school class had about 260 people. “Thinking back,” he said in a phone interview, “I believe there were four non-Caucasian classmates.”

Immigrants began coming to Worthington from around the globe in the late 1980s, when the local pork-processing plant was expanding. The cultural transition often was excruciating. Natives, Robinson said, “were afraid to go to the grocery store because they were afraid they were going to be attacked.”

Crime in Worthington is lower than in most comparable towns within a 150-mile radius, and myths about the dangers of immigrants are “really starting to wane,” Robinson said. It helps that immigrant businesses have revitalized a sinking downtown that seemed destined for destruction after a Wal-Mart opened nearby.

Today, the local JBS plant employs more than 2,000 people processing more than 20,000 hogs daily. Other businesses, including local farms, livestock transporters, veterinarians and Worthington’s downtown merchants, all benefit from the plant’s economic impact.

Not everyone in Worthington is in the U.S. legally. In 2006, federal immigration agents raided the pork plant (then owned by Swift Co.) as part of a nationwide crackdown and arrested more than 200 workers there. The Center for Immigration Studies, which supports greater restrictions on immigration, estimated in 2009 that almost one-quarter of Swift plant workers nationwide were undocumented immigrants. (Some undocumented workers use stolen Social Security numbers to obtain work; many companies pretend not to know.) The pro-immigration Migration Policy Institute, working from U.S. Census data, estimates that, nationally, about 13 percent of the workforce in the meat-processing sector is unauthorized.

Worthington is not a sanctuary city. It lacks the resources of Los Angeles or San Francisco. “We don’t care what your immigration status is,” Robinson said. “We will, however, cooperate with immigration officials.”

If the feds come for local undocumented immigrants, there’s little place for them to hide. The city works with community groups to counsel local immigrants on how to deal with law enforcement. “We have done demonstrations to show people how to behave during a routine traffic stop,” Robinson said. “Many come from countries where the police have been the bad guys.”

The 2006 raid unleashed a wave of fear through the town. The plant lost workers. The town lost residents. But the trauma didn’t stop Worthington’s transformation into a cultural polyglot.

President Donald Trump’s multi-faceted campaign against immigrants is likewise futile. Deportations and immigration bans can impose misery on families and friends. They can compromise businesses, communities and local economies. But they won’t make America white again.

“First, the racial minority population is growing more from natural increase than immigration,” Brookings Institution demographer William Frey said in an email. “Second, the white population will start declining after the year 2025.”

Robinson said more than 50 languages are now spoken in Worthington. Its diversity is a product not of coastal cosmopolitanism, but of low wages paid for hard work. The town’s political leadership still is all white. But it probably won’t be for long.

Asked if there were anything Trump’s immigration policies might do to alter Worthington’s trajectory, Robinson didn’t hesitate to answer: “Not at all.”

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week.

 


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