Blaming immigrants is nothing new. As a nation composed almost entirely of immigrants (brought by force or by choice) and their descendants, xenophobia has shadowed the American immigrant dream across the centuries. We honor the grit and drive of our own forebears even while we loathe new arrivals.
In 2015, I published Immigrant Pastoral: Midwestern Landscape and Mexican-American Neighborhoods, a book about how new and old Mexican heritage communities inhabit and shape the physical form of their neighborhoods and small cities. I completed this research in 2009, but it presaged the current national conversation, both about the perceived value or hazard of welcoming immigrants and about “forgotten” places like the small cities of the rural Rustbelt.
Immigration from Mexico has since fallen, mostly due to birthrate decline in Mexico and to economic conditions in the US – fewer jobs, fewer people come to take them. Nonetheless, here we are in the midst of the most intense episode of immigrant-blaming in my lifetime.
I grew up in rural Indiana, and I’ve seen the changes wrought in small Midwestern cities by globalization – economic changes in agriculture and manufacturing as well as the surge of new immigrants in the 1990s. The Rustbelt’s problems are real, but blaming immigrants (much less refugees, which are an entirely different group) for them is just plain wrong – factually wrong and morally wrong.
Immigrants aren’t the problem in small rustbelt cities – they are part of the solution. When your town has lost its major employer, its sons and daughters to brain drain, and struggles with falling enrollment in its school, you need people. Not just any people: people with ambition and energy in the prime of their working lives. People who will renovate houses and shops, start businesses and church congregations, and send their kids to the local schools. People like immigrants.
Much of what’s being said right now positions these as opposing sides in a zero-sum game, as if anything gained by immigrants is a loss for pre-existing residents. That’s not at all what I saw or found. While immigration from Mexico has decreased in recent years, the need for rebuilding small cities like the ones I studied has only increased. In this effort, every hand is needed. Insisting those hands must be white and native-born simply makes solving difficult problems even more difficult. No one can turn the clock back to 1950 or 1960 for these communities, and anyone who says he can is delusional, lying, or worse, conning you. No matter where the new arrivals come from, they are an important part of the future of these places – not the end, but the future. As I said in Immigrant Pastoral’s final chapter:
Today new immigrants will step into the United States for the first time. As you read this, someone is renting their first home or starting their first day of work in their new life north of the border. New ethnic businesses will open, and somewhere in the US, a native son or daughter of Mexico will buy his or her first home.
Someone will drive through the center of his hometown and wonder when the old hardware store became a tienda. Someone else will discover multiple Spanish-language radio stations on the dial in rural Ohio, and somewhere someone will curse the new arrivals in her town for speaking Spanish, for standing out, for being the face of change in a place she thought was unchangeable.
All these people, together, are the future of small cities like those in this book—the future of Wellington, of Springfield, of Unionville. The worn condition of the town around them attests to the challenges of its recent past, to its inability to relinquish a way of life that has vanished into the globalization of the United States. There is no future in attempts to recreate the past. Instead these people, Mexican-Americans and other Americans, have to learn to live with each other to create a future for these small cities. The next chapter of these places will be written in both Spanish and English.