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In Small-Town USA, Native-Born and Immigrant Residents Find Common Ground

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As Trump Works to Divide Us, Americans From Diverse Backgrounds in Small Towns  Come Together to Build Stronger Communities

Small and medium-sized towns across America are rejecting Trump’s divisiveness and bringing together established residents and newcomers in order to revitalize small-town America.

As The New  York Times reports:

Overall, immigrants have helped both wealthy and poorer rural towns cope with an aging, declining population. They’ve rescued abandoned communities, some that had been losing population since the 1920s. Immigrants make up 13 percent of the national population and 16 percent of the labor force, but they constitute 18 percent of small-business owners, according to one of the most comprehensive reports on the subject, which was done by the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative. Nationally, immigrant-owned small businesses employ 4.7 million people and, according to the report, generate $776 billion in receipts.

The Times profiles Kennett Square, Pennsylvania:

In Kennett Square, instead of leaving as they had originally hoped, [new immigrant] men saw the value in an industry that provided year-round work. In rural America they saw the ideal place to raise a family. Today, about half of Kennett Square’s residents are Hispanic, of whom an estimated 80 percent are Mexican, according to La Comunidad Hispana, which provides medical, educational and legal services for immigrants.

For more than three generations, the newcomers have contributed to the renewal of Kennett Square. Some Mexican immigrants have started their own mushroom farms. Some own hair salons. Others own Mexican grocery stores. There’s even a taco war, as locals debate who makes the best tacos: Are they downtown or in nearby Avondale? Hundreds of children are now high school graduates, and many went on to earn college degrees.

But under Trump’s policy, the damage caused by deportation looms highly in the minds of not only immigrants and their families, but other community members.  Again, the New York Times:  

“Mexicans are leaving, and that’s bad news for everyone,” Chris Alonzo, president of Pietro Industries, one of the biggest mushroom companies, and a third-generation mushroom farmer, told me. “All the negativity, the fearmongering, the anti-immigrant feeling is hurting our small town. We’re seeing labor shortages, and that threatens the vibrancy of our community.”

Meanwhile, in Carpentersville, Illinois, a town that was once hostile to newcomers is carving out a new path. As the Chicago Tribune reports:

When Carpentersville made English its official language in 2007 and proposed fines for doing business with illegal immigrants, some Hispanic residents fled, leaving behind dozens of foreclosed homes. Tom Roeser, president of OTTO Engineering, the town’s biggest employer, was alarmed.

“I could not afford for Carpentersville to become another Detroit, and it was going that way,” he said.

But something surprising happened. As years passed, conditions started improving. Crime decreased, there was less graffiti, new businesses and more people moving in — many of them Hispanic.

The Village Board moved to repeal the English-only ordinance because it was seen as out of touch with the community’s successes and future trajectory:

A Walmart and a Starbucks are new landmarks along the village’s main commercial drag, Route 25, near numerous local Hispanic businesses like La Ilusion Bakery and La Alcancia Supermarket. Twenty-one new businesses opened last year, by the village’s count. Unemployment is down, and the village had embarked on a rebranding effort centered around the river.

In addition, after years of declines, the total value of property in the village has been going steadily up, with home prices exceeding pre-recession levels. The median household income in 2010 was about $55,000, less than surrounding suburbs but near the statewide average.

The Washington Post reports a fascinating story about how volunteer fire departments are increasingly calling upon Latino and immigrant residents to join their ranks — reflecting the broader population shift in many of these areas:

The traditional firehouse is feeling particularly pressured as the population of young white men it typically relied on for staffing declines and it struggles to connect with a burgeoning immigrant community. The dynamic has left firehouses short-staffed and Latino communities underserved.

From 1984 through 2015, the number of volunteer firefighters dipped nearly 10 percent to about 815,000, even as calls to fire departments nearly tripled, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Now, community leaders across the country are rethinking firehouse cultures as they try to recruit more first- and second-generation immigrants.

As the article points out, recruiting volunteer firefighters from Latino and immigrant families benefits both public safety and community cohesion. The Post writes about Guymon, Oklahoma:   

In Guymon, a town known for its cowboys and “Wild West” history, the firehouse has become a center of cultural co-mingling. For the past 15 years, the department has been actively recruiting from the town’s rapidly growing immigrant community. About a third of Guymon’s volunteer firefighters are now Latino.

Even though that falls short of the town’s overall Hispanic representation — 56 percent — the shift has been mutually beneficial, said Chief Dean McFadden. The firehouse has remained fully staffed, and the town’s newest residents are more connected to one of the community’s most critical services.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice Education Fund:

As these towns are learning, what unites us is stronger than what divides us. America at its best brings people together from diverse backgrounds in order to build strong communities where residents have each other’s backs. Trump and his enablers may want to divide Americans in order to distract from policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many, but this divisiveness is being rejected by Americans in a growing number of small towns throughout the country. America is better than the ‘us versus them’ of Trump. We believe that when the ‘thems’ become part a larger ‘us’ we live true to our promise as a ‘nation of nations’.