The Other Story About White America and Immigrants

For those of you who, like me, could use some encouragement in these days when Donald Trump and Brexit garner all the attention, James Fallows provides just what we need.

But before we get to that, I have a bone to pick with either Fallows or his editors – whoever is responsible for a headline that reads: A Note About Trumpism, From the Real America. Referring to any part of this country as “the real America” is offensive. Full stop. It should have no place in our politics or media.

Fallows is reporting from western Kansas, specifically towns like Dodge City and Garden City, where Hispanics are now a majority. They came to work in the area’s big meat-packing plants and hail not only from Mexico, but have immigrated from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba and more recently Somalia and Sudan, among other countries. You’d think this area would be a hotbed of tension where the forces of immigration meet up with small town American nativism. But you’d be wrong.

Every single person we’ve met here — Anglo and Latino, African and Burmese and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, male and female, well-educated and barely literate, working three jobs and retired and still in school—of all these people, we’ve asked the same questions. Namely: how has Kansas handled this shift in demography? And how does it sound, in this politically and culturally conservative part of the country, to hear the national discussion about “building a wall,” about making America “a real country again,” of the presumptive Republican nominee saying even today that Americans are “angry over borders, they’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over, nobody even knows who they are.”

And every single person we have spoken with — Anglo and Latino and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, and so on down the list — every one of them has said: We need each other! There is work in this community that we all need to do. We can choose to embrace the world, or we can fade and die. And we choose to embrace it. (The unemployment rate in this area, by the way, is under 3 percent, and every business we’ve talked with has “help wanted” notices out.)

You might not be surprised at what is happening in Dodge City and Garden City if you’d read a feature from A. G. Sulzberger in the New York Times back in 2011 about the changing face of the rural plains.

For generations, the story of the small rural town of the Great Plains, including the dusty tabletop landscape of western Kansas, has been one of exodus — of businesses closing, classrooms shrinking and, year after year, communities withering as fewer people arrive than leave and as fewer are born than are buried. That flight continues, but another demographic trend has breathed new life into the region.

Hispanics are arriving in numbers large enough to offset or even exceed the decline in the white population in many places. In the process, these new residents are reopening shuttered storefronts with Mexican groceries, filling the schools with children whose first language is Spanish and, for now at least, extending the lives of communities that seemed to be staggering toward the grave.

Sulzberger presents more of a mixed bag when it comes to the response of the white residents of Kansas. But who knows, that was five years ago and perhaps things have gotten even better than he described. The point is that, without the infusion of immigrants, these small towns would have died. Dave Price painted pretty much the same picture in some of the small towns he visited in January during the Iowa caucuses.

This is not to say that the anti-immigrant sentiment we hear so much about lately is non-existent. It is very real. But it is not the ONLY story. Here’s an example of the other story Fallows heard from a construction worker in Kansas.

I wasn’t sure about the change in town. It’s different. But these people want to work. They want a better life for their children. We need them. Without them, we would shrivel up.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.