|Revival and Opportunity
Immigrants in Rural America
By Silva Mathema, Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, and Anneliese Hermann
Immigrants are playing a key role in reviving and growing many
rural communities and with the right policies could play an
even bigger role in sustaining them.
|Getty/Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald
Quang Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant and business owner, stands in
front of his store, Le Variety, in Portland, Maine, June 2017.
Introduction and summary
For years, the United States has been undergoing major
demographic changes that are reshaping the makeup of cities,
towns, and communities all across the country. Scholars
studying demographic change, particularly change tied to
immigration, traditionally approach it as an urban phenomenon:
first, detailing how immigrants live and work in traditional
receiving communities such as New York, Los Angeles, and
Boston; second, documenting how so-called new immigrant
gateway cities such as Atlanta, Denver, and Charlotte, North
Carolina, are experiencing rapid growth in their immigrant
populations; and third, exploring the movement of immigrants to
suburban areas beyond the traditional urban settings.1However,
less research is dedicated to studying how immigrants who
move to sparsely populated rural areas live in those communities
and how those communities adapt to these newcomers.
According to current media coverage of rural America, the picture that emerges most often is one of economic decline, deep-rooted despair
and resentment, overwhelming support for President Donald Trump and his policies that target immigrant communities. But this surface-level,
one-dimensional portrayal belies a much more nuanced reality and overlooks the major positive roles immigrants are playing in rural America
as well as the ways in which those significant contributions could be even more impactful.
Economic restructuring, globalization, and most recently the Great Recession have hit America’s rural communities hard, and many rural
areas are consistently losing more people than they are gaining through migration or birth.2 This loss of population has brought a string of
hardships to rural areas, from school and grocery store closures to the scaling back of essential health care services—including hospital
shutdowns. Not all rural communities are experiencing these trends equally, however. In fact, many rural communities are either experiencing
a slowdown in their rate of population decline or a resurgence as immigrants and their families, as well as refugees, move into these
communities in search of opportunity. In many rural communities, these new residents open small businesses, provide critically needed
health care services, and supply labor for meatpacking plants, small manufacturers, dairies, fruit and vegetable farms, and other enterprises.
While some rural communities adjust more easily to these demographic changes, others experience conflict, resistance, and sometimes
outright anti-immigrant sentiment—adopting shortsighted policies designed to make life harder for immigrants. While the stakes are high and
the obstacles daunting, successfully integrating immigrants into America’s rural communities can bring large dividends.
Rural communities are a microcosm of the entire country: A number of them have had trouble adjusting to their immigrant neighbors3, which is
reflective of a national undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiment that has reared its ugly head of late. Understanding lessons learned from the
rural experience with immigration during these polarized times is critical. This report illustrates the geography of population growth or decline
in rural communities, with a particular attention to changes in the immigrant population. This analysis is followed by a discussion about what
happens to communities that experience population decline and aging as well as some of the ways immigrants are helping to mitigate the
negative impacts of population decline and, in some cases, putting communities on a path to prosperity. The report focuses particular attention
on the economic contributions of immigrants to industries such as meatpacking, agriculture, and health care.
To a great extent, how well rural communities fare depends on how well they adjust to change and on how welcoming residents are to new
immigrants.4 This report discusses some of the strategies that several rural communities have utilized to help integrate residents and
newcomers and illustrates that many constructive changes do not require significant resources.
The main findings of this report are as follows:
Immigrants are often reversing or mitigating rural population decline
• Among the 2,767 rural places identified in this report, the adult population declined 4 percent—a combination of a 12 percent decline in
the native-born population and a 130 percent growth among immigrants.
• Of these places, 1,894, or 68 percent, saw their population decline between 1990 and 2012–2016. (see methodological appendix for full
• In 78 percent of the rural places studied that experienced population decline, the decline would have been even more pronounced if not
for the growth of the foreign-born population. Without immigrants, the population in these places would have contracted by 30 percent, even
more staggering than the 24 percent they experienced.
• In the 873 rural places that experienced population growth, more than 1 in 5, or 21 percent, can attribute the entirety of population growth
Immigrants are leaving a positive mark in rural communities
• As immigrants and their families move to rural communities in pursuit of economic opportunity, they often bring vitality to these places.
• Immigrants provide an indispensable workforce to support communities whose local economies rely on industries such as meat
processing plants, dairy farms, or fruits and vegetables farms.
• Immigrants and their families also help local economies in rural communities expand—particularly by opening grocery stores and other
businesses that keep their main streets alive and thriving. Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, for example, has prospered with its large population
of immigrants, who work primarily in the community’s large mushroom industry and have opened bustling businesses and restaurants.
• By helping to stave off population decline, a growing immigrant population in rural areas also helps keep schools open and, in some
cases, even grows school enrollment.
• Immigrant health care professionals such as physicians and specialists provide vital care in rural communities that are generally
grappling with a shortage of doctors. In many instances, foreign-trained doctors are the only ones providing care in their area, and even then,
many travel long distances to see them.
Takeaways for rural America to integrate their immigrant neighbors
Immigrant integration policies in the United States are localized, leading to divergent approaches and outcomes across communities. Some
communities have proactive plans in place to integrate newcomers and allow them to capture the full set of benefits that a thriving and strong
community brings. Other communities that initially struggle with their new population later implement policies that help immigrants integrate.
Still, some communities have struggled to manage the demographic changes, and local politicians can sometimes worsen these situations
by using negative rhetoric or even pushing for anti-immigrant policies that deepen the chasms in the community.
Communities that want to welcome immigrants, increase integration, and harness the benefits should take conscious steps to facilitate civil
discussions that involve the whole community. The most critical services for immigrant families often revolve around English language
learning, educational access, and social inclusion. Communities that move forward with providing these services and policies often see their
immigrant populations prosper. Many of these strategies, which benefit the community as a whole, do not require significant resources to
This report is the first in a series of products exploring the role of immigration in rural America. Focusing on the patterns of change, highlighting
the ways in which immigrants are transforming communities, and understanding how communities deal with the challenges of rapid
demographic change will not only provide the building blocks to assist rural communities and their new immigrant residents to thrive together
but might also provide valuable lessons for the entire nation. In these polarized times, rural places can show the path forward on how best to
overcome conflict around demographic change.
Immigrants are leaving an indelible mark on rural America
Immigrants, besides offsetting population decline in many rural communities, are a vital part of the rural economy and to communities’ social
fabric. Immigrants are often integral to the redevelopment and revitalization of entire communities as they go about building lives in their new
Immigrants contribute to building rural economies and communities
In rural communities, immigrants and refugees, who are often resettled there, do jobs that are essential for the survival of a number of key
industries. While immigrants in rural communities are typically associated with agriculture, the rural United States is not a monolith, and
immigrants own their own businesses and work in food processing, manufacturing, and tourism. Importantly, even in the agriculture industry,
some immigrants have transitioned from seasonal workers to fill year-round positions that allow them to put down permanent roots in a
community. In the end, immigrants make communities more stable and resilient to the changes plaguing rural communities such as an aging
population and out-migration.
Immigrants have been an indispensable part of the agricultural sector
Over the decades, the rural economy’s dependence on the agricultural sector has slowly declined against a backdrop of growing service
industries such as education and health care. Traditional sectors such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining, however, remain vital for
rural communities and provide employment to 1 out of every 10 rural workers. Family members, rather than hired workers, traditionally
performed more farm work. With increased mechanization for some crops and higher productivity among agricultural industries, the demand
for farm workforce decreased overall in the long term. As the number of family members involved in the farm also shrank over time, as
indicated by data from 1950 to 2000, the reliance on hired farmworkers to fill many of these jobs increased. Research shows that it is difficult to
hire U.S.-born workers to fill farm jobs because it is grueling work and does not pay well compared with jobs requiring similar skills, resulting
in farm owners generally turning to immigrants in search of job opportunities to fill those hard-to-hire positions.
Immigrant health care professionals provide vital care in rural communities
Recent academic reports have focused on the roles of immigrants in rural communities, and specifically on the contributions they make or can
make in the health care industry. In general, rural areas suffer from widespread shortages of medical specialists, primary care physicians, and
other health care professionals such as dentists and mental health care providers. These shortages are likely to worsen as communities find
it harder to compete with metropolitan areas to attract and retain these workers.
In these circumstances, one way rural communities can counter the shortage of doctors is to incentivize foreign-trained doctors, or
international medical graduates (IMGs), and foreign-born doctors to fill in the gaps in service through nonimmigrant visa opportunities. Foreign-
born doctors who are green card holders or citizens are free to live and work wherever they choose. Other foreign-born doctors and IMGs,
however, have mainly two nonimmigrant visa options to practice in the United States: Either they apply for a J-1 exchange visitor visa or they find
an employer to sponsor them for an H-1B visa.97 Both of these options come with upsides and downsides.
Success, failure, and something in-between
St. James, Minnesota, is a standout case of effective immigrant integration. In the 1970s and 1980s, St. James became a destination for
immigrants when a local plant, Tony Downs Foods Co., began to recruit Hispanic workers and encourage immigrant families to relocate to the
community of then fewer than 5,000 people. In response, St. James gathered a group of local stakeholders to form an organization called the
Spirit of St. James to create a strategy for welcoming and including the immigrant population in the area. The coalition initially collected
reflections from the U.S.-born population but focused later on immigrants, who described feeling watched in public spaces and being unable
to navigate the resources available to them. In response to some of the issues raised during these discussions, St. James leaders formed
another group comprised of school and social stakeholders called the Family Services Collaborative, which focused on making services
accessible to immigrant families. The Family Services Collaborative worked to provide ESL programs in schools, translations of documents
and informational pamphlets into Spanish, and initiatives specifically targeted to support transitory migrant families.
Integration efforts in St. James have since evolved into several additional initiatives including the Horizons program, which provides integration
training, and Unity-Unidad, which encourages positive relationships between U.S.-born and foreign-born residents. As a result, St. James has
seen a marked decrease over time in intergroup hostilities, and its immigrant population has established itself, including new arrivals who are
settling in the community.
Immigration can breathe fresh life into declining rural communities by reversing population loss, spurring economic growth, meeting labor
needs to preserve key industries, contributing to the local tax base, and supporting hospitals and clinics to prevent health care deserts.
Fostering the potential benefits of these new residents is far from a given, however, and communities would do well to take intentional and
proactive steps toward integration.
Local leaders and stakeholders must use an organized and thoughtful approach to lift up and reconcile both U.S.-born and foreign-born voices
in a responsible and inclusive political and social climate. Local needs must guide the development of a set of tools and organizations to
address the concerns of communities both in the present and over time, including programs for English instruction, bilingual services for
immigrant families, and initiatives geared toward intergroup social interaction.
While the story of communities such as St. James speaks to the value of acting early, the examples of Beardstown and Postville illustrate that
even communities that have suffered from division and tension can heal and move forward with a modicum of strategic planning and some
good-faith effort. Hazleton is already looking toward a brighter future, and other rural communities around the country can follow suit, reaping
rewards by welcoming immigrant families as neighbors. Small communities such as Fremont, where the Costco chicken plant is set to open,
can get ahead of the curve by openly embracing the change that is coming, including the economic growth that the new workers and their
families will create.
Admittedly, population increases and demographic changes can pose challenges, for example, by requiring communities to meet a higher
demand for goods and services and accommodate the needs of a different population such as English language learners at school. But
finding solutions to meet these demands and counteract challenges may be considered an investment in—not a cost to—the future growth
and sustenance of a rural community. Future research should go deeper into understanding the ways immigrants can fit into rural life and the
mechanisms in which policymakers, residents, and immigrants can work together to make a prosperous community.
About the authors
Silva Mathema is a senior policy analyst for Immigration Policy at American Progress. Previously, she worked as a research associate for the
Poverty and Race Research Action Council, where she studied the intersections between race and ethnicity issues and policies regarding
affordable housing and education. She earned her Ph.D. in public policy from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where her
dissertation focused on the impact of a federal immigration enforcement program on the integration of Hispanic immigrants in Charlotte-
Mecklenburg, North Carolina, and a Bachelor of Arts in economics from Salem College. She is originally from Kathmandu, Nepal.
Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is a senior policy analyst for Immigration Policy at American Progress. Prior to joining American Progress, Svajlenka
worked at the Pew Charitable Trusts, where she examined the relationships between federal, state, and local immigration policies. Before Pew,
Svajlenka worked at the Brookings Institution, where she conducted quantitative research on immigration, demographics, human capital, and
labor markets in metropolitan areas across the United States. A Chicagoland native, Svajlenka holds a Master of Arts in geography from
George Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts in environmental geography from Colgate University.
Anneliese Hermann is a former intern for Immigration Policy at American Progress. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from
the University of Georgia.