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    Opinion: When rural communities welcome immigrants, everyone wins

    By Denny Spinner, opinion contributor,


    The mood at a town council meeting in rural Washington, Ind., (population: 12,171) was getting tense. In recent years, immigrants from Latin America and Haiti had been moving there in large numbers. They now comprised over 33 percent of the population. Inclusion was an issue.

    “We need more resources to settle these folks,” said a native Hoosier. “There’s so much paperwork and no one to help us with it,” said a representative for the new arrivals to vigorous approval from people gathered there. “How do we get our kids into the schools?” asked another new arrival.

    Outsiders imagine rural town meetings as home to racist rants and backwards thinking. Yet this town meeting underscores what rural Americans already understand: Rural communities are emptying out. If these communities are to thrive, or even survive, they need immigrants settling there.

    It is up to rural communities and their leaders to welcome and to help include newcomers. They must account for cultural differences and the vast administrative needs of recent immigrants. They must foster mutual understanding and, critically, must find leaders among the newcomers and listen to them. If they do, they will foster what few thought possible: the reversal of decades of decline.

    Contrary to the hopeless picture of rural America some journalists paint — most misleadingly in Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman’s book “ White Rural Rage” — rural Americans are entirely capable of such change.

    I know this because Huntingburg, Ind., ( population: 6,490 ) did so while I was mayor.

    Starting in the 1980s, Spanish-speaking immigrants came north to work in our poultry processing plant. By 2010, immigrants were nearing a third of the population. Tensions started growing, and the mismatch between resources and needs was getting obvious; elementary school teachers who didn’t speak a word of Spanish were trying to incorporate kids who spoke no English, smack in the middle of the school year. The immigrant workforce was moving into all industries, and employers were struggling to overcome barriers to provide basic human services to this new employee group.

    Yet we saw that change was not only inevitable, it was desirable. The newcomers did work that the town and the local economy needed done. They brought economic growth. They infused vibrancy to an emerging downtown.

    Our first and most critical move was to engage directly with the leadership that had grown organically in the immigrant community. We worked with the Association of Latin Americans in Southern Indiana to understand the Latino community’s needs. Their list included help with America’s complicated immigration system; housing (an issue hardly unique to them); access to health care; education for their kids; and a sense of belonging.

    We knew this wasn’t going to happen overnight. It was clear to me and to the city council that we couldn’t simply invite the Latino community to the table for a meeting; we needed them at the table for the long haul. It was a relief when the first person of El Salvadorean descent was elected to the city council in 2015.

    We were able to make steady progress. We started a program with Indiana University Bloomington (IU) law faculty and students, who came to help the Latino community with the immigration process.

    We also tackled inclusion in our schools. Attracting Spanish-speaking teachers was a major undertaking, but it was a priority, so we did it. The local school corporation implemented an innovative dual-language immersion program. It’s split roughly between native English and Spanish speakers who spend the day together in the same classroom where they receive instruction in both languages. There are two elementary school classes of 20 students each at each grade level (one of whom is my grandson), and it is expanding every school year. Already, demand is so high that there’s a lottery to get in.

    Huntingburg didn’t overlook softer cultural issues, either. Over the years, the annual Latino Cultural Festival has become a must-attend event and the unofficial end of summer in town. Everyone shows up, watches shows, admires art and, well, eats too much.

    (Full disclosure, to get many of the above initiatives off the ground, we leveraged IU’s Center for Rural Engagement , which I now lead. It did a comprehensive study of our educational, economic and cultural needs and built a plan that fast-tracked our progress by years. Not every rural area has such resources, though large public universities should offer them.)

    This effort culminated in a one-stop resource center for immigrant communities in Huntingburg, which helps them navigate immigration, health care, education, childcare and much more. It was exactly such a resource center that the people in Washington, Ind., were demanding at the town meeting.

    The picture of rural America as a dying wasteland home to a dwindling number of angry white people may appeal to folks who have never been here. But it’s wrong. In Huntingburg, labor force participation and median incomes are up. The poverty rate is down . Where rural America has sound strategy and leadership committed to inclusion, it can be vibrant once more.

    Denny Spinner is interim executive director of the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement and the former mayor of Huntingburg, Ind.

    Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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