Taking Roots: Future Arrives to Diversify Small-Town USA

By Maribel Hastings

Ready or not, diversity is reshaping places across America unfamiliar with it. That’s creating connections—and collisions.

When an unexpected Midwestern monsoon hits, there’s nothing like waiting out the storm while sipping horchata and listening to some good mariachi. Welcome to Mexico Antiguo, a restaurant on Main Street in Marshalltown, Iowa.

At Postville High School, 133 miles away, a photo on display in the hallway shows a group of elegant youths of obviously European descent: the graduating class of 1903. The cloud of white faces no longer resembles the students who stream out of the school at the end of the day. In Postville, Iowa, population 2,227, one-third of the residents are now Hispanic, and the school reflects the town’s diversity.

Along South Boulevard in Charlotte, N.C., signs in Spanish jostle for attention with ads in English. One can almost see the hands of the Hispanic laborers who built this city’s stadium and buildings that now adorn its skyline. Charlotte’s Hispanic population has grown 153 percent over the past decade; across the state, Raleigh’s Hispanic population has grown 152 percent. No wonder the Dominican-American-owned supermarket chain Compare keeps opening franchises in both places.

In Arlington, Va., at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, blond, blue-eyed children speak perfect Spanish. They’re enrolled in a language-immersion program praised by J. Walter Tejada, the only Hispanic on the Arlington County Board of Supervisors.

Meanwhile, the next county over, Prince William, recovers from the economic crisis—exacerbated by a county ordinance that allowed officials to ask anyone they suspected to be undocumented for their papers. Many Hispanics took the bill’s passage as a cue to leave the county, straining the local economy.

By now, many Americans are familiar with the long-range projections that mark America’s transition into a world nation: By 2023, ethnic minorities will represent a majority of the under-18 population; by 2050, minorities will represent a majority of the entire population.

Over the past several decades, this powerful current has infused new energy and challenges alike into metropolitan areas that have long been magnets for immigration, including New York and Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix, Dallas and Denver. But increasingly, this tide of change is spilling over into places that previously had not been shaped by diversity. While almost 50 percent of U.S. Hispanics live in 10 large metropolitan areas, almost two-thirds of the past decade’s Hispanic population growth occurred outside of those areas.

This is bringing propulsive ethnic and racial change, with all of its opportunities and complications, to places not used to it. While there’s evidence that the recession has cooled the Hispanic demographic explosion in places like Charlotte, N.C., and Provo, Utah, as jobs have been lost in cyclical sectors such as construction, that is almost certainly more a pause than a reversal. The basic trend toward new faces in new places seems irreversible: From 2000 to 2010, Hispanics accounted for at least 40 percent of the population growth in half of the 50 states. It’s probably not a surprise that minorities represent a majority of the elementary and secondary school children in Miami-Dade County and Los Angeles, but now they constitute 30 percent in Lincoln, Neb.; 50 percent in Des Moines, Iowa;  and 53 percent in Salt Lake City. School-board and city-council members in areas unaccustomed to diversity are wrestling with the same questions about harmonizing the needs of different groups in neighborhoods and schools that have long perplexed their big-city counterparts.

“All of a sudden, at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, we started to get Latino students,” says MariaRosa Rangel, a senior administrator of Limited English Proficiency Family Outreach for Wake County School District in North Carolina. “The concern was, ‘How are we going to understand how to attend to them? How are we going to communicate with … parents? How are we going to understand the cultural differences?’ ”

The opportunities for cultural collision are many: fear of the unknown (especially of other races and languages) or of losing community identity; individual and collective prejudice; political opportunism; economic worries; and, in many cases, the sheer shock of the new. Many long-term residents assume that whites and minorities are engaged in a zero-sum competition for jobs; others are anxious over minority use of social services, or wary of spending public money on students who are still learning English.

As more communities wrestle with these changes, it remains an open question whether they will produce a new harmony or a contentious cacophony. The one certainty is that demography will provide no respite: The growth and dispersion of the minority population will remain one of the defining characteristics of American life for decades.

“America is changing. It’s better to be prepared than be in denial. At least you should look at the trends to see, if this does happen, how do you embrace this and make it an opportunity rather than create laws that stop it from happening,” says Mitchell Silver, chief planning and economic development officer for the city of Raleigh and president of the American Planning Association.


On first impression, it doesn’t look like anything has changed in Iowa. White residents are still as common as corn here, accounting for 91 percent of the state’s slightly more than 3 million people, according to the 2010 census. Statewide, Hispanics still represent only 1 in 20 residents. But over the last decade, Iowa’s white population actually contracted by 1 percentage point, while its Hispanic population increased by 2.3 percentage points.

That’s been enough to alter the look not only of Des Moines, the state capital, but even small towns, such as Marshalltown, population 27,552, and even smaller Postville. The ensuing changes have resulted in inevitable collisions—the growing pains of any community forced to adapt to change and integration.

The Hispanic share of Marshalltown’s population has almost doubled over the past 10 years to 24 percent. More than 42 businesses here are Hispanic-owned. For the past two decades, Hispanics have been drawn to Marshalltown by jobs in meat-processing and -packing plants, farms, and dairies. In 2006, the community found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight when Immigration and Customs Enforcement federal agents raided a Swift & Co. meat-packing plant here and arrested nearly 100 of its workers as undocumented workers.

From that wrenching experience, it would be easy to assume that the presence of Hispanics and other minorities has brought nothing but tension. The reality is more complex.

The first wave of immigrants to Marshalltown was men who arrived on their own during the late 1980s and early 1990s to work in the meat plants. The arrival of significant numbers of unattached men, who looked different and spoke differently than the longtime residents, generated predictable tension. This eventually gave way by around the turn of the century to the arrival of entire families—not just from Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Latin America, but Hispanic families from other states. By now, many of Marshalltown’s Hispanics say they have lived in the state for more than a decade.

This influx has been felt most profoundly in the churches and the schools. Sister Christine Feagan directs the Catholic Church’s Hispanic ministry in Marshalltown’s St. Mary’s Parish. The very existence of her job is a testament to change, but she can measure it even more precisely. “I use the parish as a gauge,” she says. “When I arrived in 1999, there was one Mass in Spanish and three in English. Now, we have three Masses in Spanish, and 70 percent of the parish is Hispanic.”

In the schools, the transition is almost as powerful. Twenty years ago, 98 percent of Marshalltown Community School District students were white. Minorities now represent 54 percent of the total enrollment, with Hispanics alone (43 percent) nearly equaling whites (46 percent). Last year, Marshalltown High School’s prom king and queen were Hispanic.

As Hispanic students, many of them immigrants, began to flood into the school district at the beginning of the decade, the English as a Second Language program became a lightning rod for controversy. In 1992, 75 students were classified as English Language Learners. Now 1,735 students speak one of 30 languages besides English, and the district has the third-largest population of ELL students in the state.

The 2006 Swift raid added another source of conflict: Many students had to cope with the arrest, detention, and deportation of their parents. As the raid heightened tensions in the community, conflict spilled over into school hallways.

Salvador Lara, a 25-year-old born in Mexico, graduated from Marshalltown High School in 2006. He remembers edginess between whites and Latinos, but he says it gradually dissipated. He was part of the group Building Bridges, which was founded to improve communication among ethnic groups.

Conflict, he says, has eased in part because “Hispanics no longer have the worst jobs or the poorest houses. It demonstrates that we’re reaching a level that’s helping us be more accepted. We’ve contradicted a lot of stereotypes about Hispanics.”

The town itself appears to have undergone an evolution similar to the one Lara describes in the schools. “When the Swift raid happened, it really woke up our town. For the first time, it really humanized the immigration issue. And people realized the economic impact it would have in Marshalltown. What if the entire Latino community pulled out of here? Schools would have closed, businesses would have closed,” says Joa LaVille, youth services director for the Marshalltown Public Library.

LaVille is a member of Immigrant Allies, one of the groups that has sprouted in Iowa to promote understanding of how demographic change and its consequences affect everyone in the community. She represents what has probably become the dominant view: Whether citizens or immigrants, legal or undocumented, everyone contributes to the economy: with their labor; with the businesses they open and fund; with the taxes they pay on goods, property, and income; with the rent and utility bills they pay; with the schools they fill. It’s a lesson residents have been forced to learn, and one many of them are still digesting.

The reality is that without the population growth that the immigrants provided, Marshalltown faced “very definite population and economic decline,” says Mark A. Grey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa and the director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration.

Ken Anderson, president of the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “What has evolved over time is the realization of our indigenous population that they [Latinos] are in fact an economic force for everyday living,” he says. “And I think that it took us a while to roll that out.”

Yet complications endure. One is the complex immigration status of some residents. Lara, for instance, was born in Mexico and brought here illegally by his sister when he was 14. After he graduated from Marshalltown High, he pursued a community-college degree. But without papers, he was ineligible for scholarships and took a job in a restaurant instead. Later, he was charged with fifth-degree theft for taking a money bag he found in a parking lot. The fine was only $85, but under the Obama administration’s ICE Secure Communities program (which checks the immigration status of anyone booked into a local jail), Lara was turned over to immigration agents, detained, and nearly deported. Now out on bail, he awaits his first immigration-court hearing in Omaha, Neb., in June. Hundreds of Marshalltown residents have written letters of support.

Concern about illegal immigration remains a burr in Iowa—not as inflamed as in places like Arizona and Alabama, but persistent and raw in some quarters.

“You hear around that they need to go home, they need to learn English, they are illegals, we need an Arizona type of law,” says Larry Ginter, a 73-year-old retired farmer who was born and raised in the nearby town of Rhodes. “We just push back. Some of us understand why so many of the folks are up here. But some people don’t. I try to change minds, but sometimes it’s difficult.”


These cross-pressures may be even more evident in nearby Postville. This tiny town was transformed by an influx of workers to its Agriprocessors meat-packing plant. The kosher plant attracted not just a community of Hasidic Jews (mostly from Brooklyn), but immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico as well as refugees from several countries. Incorporating all of those new faces wasn’t easy, but many here felt that the community was progressing on that path. It was also benefiting from the population growth. “I don’t think it would be idealistic to say we’d struck a balance, albeit fragile, that people had reached the point of being neighbors,” says Maryn Olson, a local resident.

Then in 2008, in a massive ICE raid, nearly 400 of the plant’s 1,000 workers were detained. Fully 306 were convicted, mostly for use of false identification documents. The raid broke open a hornet’s nest of violations at the plant, including animal abuse and violations of food-safety and labor laws, as well as a bank-fraud operation for which one owner is currently serving a 27-year prison sentence. (None of the owners was convicted on immigration charges, however.) Agriprocessors, which declared bankruptcy in 2008, was sold to new owners.

To replace the detained workers came Native Americans from reservations in Nebraska, recruits from homeless shelters in South Texas and other states, and people from Palau—who, as the result of a World War II-vintage treaty, can work in the United States without applying for a work visa.

Almost four years later, the community is recovering, many residents say, although some concede that the raid erased a measure of the progress made toward integration.

“We have the Palauans, the Somalians now, so the demographics have changed. But there’s more negative stigma attached to everything. So more single men instead of the families again … in a way we’re now backtracking,” says Jillian White-Hernández, 27,  a high school teacher married to an undocumented immigrant.

Yet even the raid itself fostered a number of interethnic relationships that remain strong today. One of them can be seen in the living room of Guatemalan immigrant Rosa Zamora, where Priscilla Sliwa, a Quaker farm owner who lives near Decorah, Iowa, gets enthusiastic hugs of greeting from Zamora’s two daughters when she stops by for a visit.

Zamora and her husband were undocumented when they worked at the Agriprocessors plant and were detained in the raid. Her husband was deported to Guatemala.

A week after the raid, Sliwa went to Postville to volunteer at St. Bridget’s Church, which was serving as a sanctuary to immigrants and their families. Someone asked her to visit a mother who needed assistance. And so, “gracias a Dios,” Sliwa says in Spanish, she met Zamora. Today, Zamora’s daughters, one born in Guatemala and one in Iowa, call her “Grandma.”

Zamora applied for, and was eventually able to obtain, legal status thanks to a U visa, for immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes while in the United States. She was then able to petition for legal status for her husband—allowing him to return to Postville from Guatemala—and for her older daughter.

Sliwa sees demographic change in Iowa as an inevitability. She traces the migrations evident in the heartland today to longtime U.S. policies, such as intervention in Central American civil wars in the 1980s. “My government, I believe, has created the situation from which Rosa came looking for something better for her family,” Sliwa says. “This immigrant story is the story of all of us, and together we are a stronger country.”


The relationship between Zamora and Sliwa offers a hopeful vision of how the U.S. may respond as diversity spreads into new places. The experience of Prince William County, Va., shows the opportunity for strain.

The county has been a destination for immigrants since the 1980s, when many fleeing civil wars in Central America settled in the Washington area. Tensions always existed, according to some residents, but rekindled when the economic boom of the 1990s brought another wave of immigrants attracted by the availability of jobs and the low cost of living.

Tension rose again after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and heightened further when housing prices collapsed in 2007 and the overall economy soon followed. Rising unemployment rates and foreclosures swept aside whatever grudging tolerance residents had developed for the new arrivals.

The county was thrust into the center of the national immigration debate in 2007, when its Republican-majority County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that allowed police to ask about the immigration status of anyone they suspected to be undocumented.

The bitter debate over the measure produced tensions, and Hispanics left en masse for neighboring counties. A University of Virginia study estimated that between 2,000 and 6,000 people packed up. Houses and apartments were abandoned, the local economy slowed, and some small-business owners were forced to shut down entirely. (Even so, the Hispanic population in Prince William grew from 8 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2010.)

Unusual at the time, the ordinance now has echoes elsewhere. Over the past several years, Republican-controlled legislatures in several states have approved largely overlapping bills to severely toughen enforcement of laws targeting illegal immigrants. In Arizona, which set the template with its SB 1070 legislation, tension over the border has inflamed the issue. But many of the states that followed suit are those that have experienced the most rapid (and unprecedented) growth in their Hispanic populations, like Alabama and South Carolina.

As in many of these states, the push against illegal immigration in Prince William County drew support from an array of concerns that extended well beyond any fear of economic competition from the new arrivals. The effort also drew on anxieties about the changing face of the student body in the public schools, the offering of English as a Second Language courses, and the availability of social services for immigrants—services that undocumented immigrants cannot access, but legal residents and citizens can. Fear of crime also fueled the move, although a University of Virginia study found that fewer than 2 percent of those arrested in the county in 2008 (after the law was implemented) were undocumented immigrants. Finally, there was the political dimension: The president-at-large of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, Republican Corey Stewart, ran for reelection on a promise to combat undocumented immigration.

When Prince William’s economy began to feel the effects of the anti-immigrant ordinance, pressure grew to amend it. That, combined with the potential for civil-rights violations and racial profiling as well as the high cost of implementing the law and defending it in court, led the board to narrow the ordinance in 2008 to apply only to those who had already been detained. But today, Stewart says flatly that the law “was not a mistake.”

“There were some initial impacts on some retail, especially restaurants in areas where there was concentration of illegal immigrants,” he admits. “However, the economy has exceeded all expectations in economic growth. The Latino population has not gone down. It has stabilized, with more young families with children and fewer of the single men that were illegal immigrants. It has been a very good policy.”

The gulf between the perspective of Stewart and his supporters, who believe the law has helped the county, and Hispanics and others who view it as discriminatory, shows no sign of narrowing. Indeed that same gulf is now evident in states such as Alabama, Arizona, and South Carolina that have pursued similar initiatives. All of these struggles are a reminder that the demographic transformation bringing new faces to places unaccustomed to them promises years not only of new connections but new collisions as well.


The demographic trends transforming American communities across the country have triggered a process of adaptation–often forced, often tentative, and more painful in some places than others.

The growing presence of minorities in even the least-expected places, sustained by immigration and high birthrates, continues to test the capacity of communities and of the country itself to absorb the initial shock.

But so far, experience suggests that the longer communities are exposed to newcomers, the more likely initial resistance will yield to some measure of tolerance and understanding. In most cases, once the long-standing residents accept that change is inevitable and that they need minority and new residents to ensure the future of their economy and community, the choice becomes evident.

Undergirding the tension between individuals or groups within a community are often structural factors that can’t be breached by cultural understanding alone. One of the most powerful of these is undocumented immigration. So long as significant portions of the Hispanic population are here illegally, it is difficult for groups to engage in the open dialogue needed for successful integration. While immigration reform remains an enormously polarizing issue nationally, there seems little question that it has the potential to foster greater connection in many communities undergoing rapid change.

In the meantime, however, the internal structure of many immigrant families is helping advance this dialogue by another means. The children of many undocumented immigrants are first-generation Americans who speak English, are integrated into society, and serve as a sort of cultural bridge for their parents. Of course, many of these children also encounter obstacles to integration and upward mobility; too many fail to graduate from high school, much less college. But younger generations, both of newcomers and in the longer-established community, have grown up in the midst of demographic change; they are more likely to accept it as a way of life.

Intertwined with the struggle for individual empowerment and advancement are the obstacles minorities face to political enfranchisement—to have a seat at the table to make the decisions that affect them as a group and the communities at large. On one hand, the large number of undocumented immigrants and lower participation rates—even for Hispanics here legally— guarantees that minority voting power will be limited relative to the size of the population. On the other, efforts to register and mobilize voters are facing ever-higher obstacles imposed by Republican governors and state legislators who argue that restrictions are needed to combat fraud.

The difficulty Latinos face in converting their increased numbers and economic importance into political power means that ultimately, the responsibility lies with leaders of the receiving community to represent everyone. Political leaders at all levels face a decision that often determines the immediate fortunes of their communities: whether to facilitate change and provide support for integration or to perpetuate divisions and risk economic strain or even collapse.

As the nation navigates these unsettled waters, the most hopeful sign is the proliferation of grassroots groups that have persuaded longtime residents to accept newcomers, if not out of genuine appreciation for diversity, at least from an awareness of economic necessity. One Iowa farmer offered what might be the best advice for a nation still adjusting to this epic infusion of diversity: “We have to agree to row in the same direction to stay afloat, because we’re all in the same boat.”

This report appeared on the Nation Journal on on 5/23/12

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