Rural America Needs Immigrants Too

A central theme of Donald Trump’s candidacy was to inflame anti-immigrant sentiments. He kicked off his campaign by talking about Mexican drug dealers and rapists – telling people that the Mexican government was purposefully sending us their worst of the worst – and that our Southern border was overflowing with “illegals” entering the country. He initially promised to deport ’em all and build a secure wall on the border, which he’d make Mexico pay for. Of course, all of that – including both the problem and Trump’s solution – turned out to be a lie.

We’re not hearing much about a wall these days, so who knows whether that will turn out to be virtual or real. But Trump has promised to immediately deport 2 to 3 million immigrants who he deems to be “criminal.” That number seems to have been made up out of whole cloth, and is simply indicative of another lie from our president-elect.

The anti-immigrant fervor is a key ingredient to the white nationalism movement to which Steve Bannon has become a key figure. Their agenda rests on the idea that migrants – be they Hispanic or Middle Eastern – pose a threat to the success of white working class people both here and in other European countries.

As we wait to see what a Trump administration actually plans to do on immigration, it is interesting to note that the Wall Street Journal is indicative of a press that has returned to telling the truth now that the election is over. Miriam Jordon and Santiago Perez write, “Small Businesses Lament There Are Too Few Mexicans in U.S., Not Too Many.”

In Dallas, the King of Texas Roofing Co. says it has turned down $20 million worth of projects in the past two years because it doesn’t have enough workers.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Joe Hargrave is expanding his successful Tacolicious chain of restaurants, but says he is building smaller ones due to “a massive shortage of restaurant workers.”

And in Florida, Steve Johnson, who harvests oranges for the citrus industry, says, “Right now, if I had 80 guys, I could put every one of them to work.”

As hiring accelerates and the labor market tightens thanks to a steady U.S. recovery, employers who need low-skilled workers are increasingly struggling to fill vacancies. One big reason: Mexican workers, who form the labor backbone of industries like hospitality, construction and agriculture, are in short supply.

This is not a problem that sprang up immediately, but has been developing over time. Initially the number of undocumented workers declined in 2009 as a result of the Great Recession. But there are other forces at work.

Multiple factors are behind the decline. Mexican families are smaller and their children are better educated; some Mexican states have launched campaigns to discourage youngsters from making the perilous journey north; and smugglers are commanding higher prices to get migrants through territory often controlled by drug gangs and across a far more secure border than ever before.

In the U.S., an aging population, the physically demanding nature of many blue-collar jobs and the trend toward pursuing college degrees compound the labor shortage.

This presents a good news/bad news scenario for workers. The good news is that employers are raising their wages and offering incentives in order to attract workers. The bad news is that those efforts could fuel higher prices/inflation and, as the owner of Tacolicious noted above, could reduce expansion plans and produce fewer jobs.

As I have noted in the past, this could be a particularly acute issue for large swaths of rural America (particularly in the Midwest and South) where Trump garnered so much support. On the one hand, many of these communities are dying and it is only via an influx of immigrants that they might have a chance to survive. As A. G. Sulzberger wrote in the New York Times back in 2011:

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.

On the other hand, these kinds of changes are likely to cause fear and attract long-time white residents to Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again.”

Contemplating the forces of change that are at work both here at home and around the globe is daunting. As a small example, consider the fact that for Mexico, access to birth control, education and a growing middle class have dramatically altered the flow of immigrants to the U.S. – just as they are needed to revive rural America. That is already beginning to reverberate in our economy.

People like Trump and Bannon have successfully exploited those changes to fan the flames of fear and anger. Their preferred policies don’t look forward to how we can adapt to the changes in a way that enhances the opportunities available to workers. Instead, they’ve convinced a lot of people that a mythical past can be re-created. That is doomed to failure and it is the least among us that will pay the price.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.