A sea change in Midwestern immigration

By Richard C. Longworth

Just as President Barack Obama and Congress are moving to solve the nation's immigration problem, the shape of the problem is changing.

Across the Midwest, companies — mostly agriculture-related — are hiring many fewer Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants. The reason: half or more of these immigrants were undocumented, and employers were both tired of verifying documents and afraid of the penalties if they slipped. Some highly-publicised raids by federal immigration agents reinforced their fears, as did a new policy of "silent raids" targeting employers themselves.

These Hispanics are increasingly being replaced in packinghouses and on farms by a spectrum of immigrants — apparently legal — from other countries. These include immigrants under national quotas, refugees, and winners of the government's visa lotteries. They come from around the world, mostly Africa and Asia, and include Pacific islanders, Congolese, Sudanese, Somalis, Vietnamese, Burmese, Ukrainian Pentecostals, and others.

Evidence for this is mostly anecdotal, gleaned from visits and calls to Midwestern towns that once were on their way to being majority Hispanic. I'll fill in some of these details later. So far as I know, there's been little media attention to this shift. At the moment, it's a big story waiting to be reported. 

Partly because of the federal raids, undocumented Hispanic immigrants became the public face of the opposition in the Midwest and elsewhere to immigration in general and illegal immigration in particular. Although statistical evidence is scanty, this problem, largely centred in small meatpacking towns and rural areas, may be on its way to a solution.

This doesn't solve the broader immigration problem, especially the quandary of illegal immigration — the question that Obama and Congress are trying to answer. But it does shift the geography and rhetoric of the issues.

There still remains an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., about 9 million of them Mexican or other Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. This peaked in 2007 at about 12 million, Pew says, including 7 million Mexicans, and dropped slightly after that as the recession destroyed the jobs, in construction and other work, that the immigrants filled.

According to Pew, net migration was flat between 2005 and 2010. The few Mexicans coming here were balanced by the few Mexicans returning. All those Congressional demands for tighter border enforcement only control a flow that has dried up — at least for now.  

This raises two questions. What has happened to immigrants who lost their jobs in the recession? More specifically, where have the Mexicans who lost jobs in meatpacking towns and rural areas gone?

So far, there seem to be few answers. Pew and other experts say that a surprisingly low number have gone back to Mexico. Many have homes and families here. Job prospects in Mexico aren't that great. And improved border enforcement here means that, if an illegal immigrant goes back to Mexico, he'll have a harder time than ever returning to the US when the economy picks up. Which is another way of saying that tighter borders may or may not keep illegal immigrants out of the US but they do seem to keep them here.

According to various Midwestern experts, some Mexicans and other Hispanics are leaving towns where they once worked. Possibly they're going to Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities with large established Hispanic communities. Others who put down roots are staying and looking for other work. High school students, especially the "Dreamers" born here who can aspire to citizenship, are also likely to stay, encouraging their families to stay, too, in hopes this second generation can thrive in an American society that rejected the first generation.

I first heard of this shift in employment during a visit to St. Joseph, Missouri, where I was told that a pork processor agreed to open a new plant only if it could be assured there would be no federal raids. St. Joseph already had a Mexican population that came to work at an earlier meatpacking plant, but few of them were hired. Instead, most of the new employees are southeast Asians or Africans, mostly Sudanese.

This underlines two aspects of the new situation. First, employers are reluctant to hire any Hispanics, legal or illegal, rather than try to figure out which is which. And second, the highly-publicised raids, especially during the Bush Administration, had a major impact on employers' thinking.

Mark Grey, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and the expert on immigration in that state, says flatly that "Latinos are old news". What he calls post-Latino hiring practices has brought in many new nationalities to take these jobs. This has altered the demographics of meatpacking towns such as Storm Lake and Marshalltown and complicated lives of police, schools, and other public agencies: thirty languages are now spoken in the hallways at Marshalltown High School, Grey says.

"We call this microplurality", he says.

Reuters had a good story from Beardstown, a tough old Illinois River town south of Peoria that was at least 30 per cent Hispanic when I spent some time there five years ago. All were drawn to the big pork processing plant outside town owned by Cargill; Cargill says it never recruited workers in Mexico and insists it worked hard to make sure all workers were legal, but I didn't meet any Beardstown officials who believed either claim.

Whatever, a series of raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, including a heavy-handed raid on a kosher meatpacking plant in the Iowa town of Postville that left the plant closed and its owner in jail, rattled plant owners around the Midwest. Then an ICE raid at Cargill in 2007 netted 63 illegal workers.

Cargill quickly began recruiting workers from Puerto Rico. More recently, many of its workers have come from west African countries such as the Congo and Togo. The local schools, which struggled to deal with Spanish-speaking students, have had to hire French-speaking outreach officers, Reuters says.

ICE has instituted so-called "silent raids," Grey says — audits of company employment rolls and, increasingly, arrests of employers. This has only increased the incentives to stop hiring Hispanics, whether documented or undocumented.

When the recession ends, the need for workers will pick up, generating new pressure on the border. But the old pipeline between depressed Mexican regions and the small towns of the Midwest may be broken forever.

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner

31 January 2013