Storm Warning

Storm Warning

Finding workers in rural Minnesota may soon become even more difficult.

In the 1970s there were very few Hispanic or Somali people living in rural Minnesota, or at least not in the area I knew growing up near Hutchinson, about 60 miles west of the Twin Cities.

We had Hispanic migrant workers who would come during the summer to help with Green Giant and other harvests. But all the kids on sports teams from schools such as Hector, Cokato, Howard Lake and Glencoe were white; so were all the local kids working in farm fields and barns.

Immigration was spoken about with pride: It was what most of their grandparents had done, and why the kids were born and raised where they were.

Today, most rural towns of more than a few hundred people have Hispanic residents. They make up more than 20 percent of the population in several of them, including Melrose and Willmar, 30 percent in a few such as St. James and Long Prairie, and more than 40 percent in Worthington. They make up 27 percent of the population in Nobles County, 23 percent in Watonwan and 12 percent in Kandiyohi.

Immigration has recently come to mean darker skin, non-European peoples coming into once previously all-white areas. It has become a lifeline, without which many livestock and ag producers could not operate today, and many towns like those mentioned above would be mere shells. And while there has been some friction here and there to this change, over the course of the last two decades, immigrants—especially Hispanics—have become friends, fellow churchgoers and coworkers in these towns.

But what appeared to have been harmonious coexistence is now fraught with trepidation, as “immigration” has been combined with “illegal” and “terrorism” by Donald Trump, before and since he became president. It’s important to realize he speaks of something many voters believe, including those in rural Minnesota counties that voted for him.

Some stats indicate there are good reasons to focus on undocumented and therefore illegal immigrants, and crime. There are indeed tens of thousands of Hispanics in this country who commit crimes and are deported each year, according to U.S. Customs numbers. The implication: They’re committing crimes at a rate higher than the average American citizen and, what about the thousands of others who are undocumented and committing crimes as well? “Bad hombres” as Trump says. Yet other numbers will show that on a percentage basis, other groups of U.S. residents commit just as many, if not more crimes. Stats are available on all sides on this one.

Another concern of Trump’s and those supporting a crackdown on illegal immigrants is that they’re taking jobs so many U.S. citizens want. I challenge anyone who believes this to work at a hog processing facility for a year and actually talk with those trying to hire people to work such jobs before continuing with such nonsense. The fact is immigrants for the most part have become the only people who will take those jobs—as was the case when many of our immigrant forebears came to this country.

Most often, it seems that people boil it all down to something along these lines: Why not deport all of the “illegals,” given they’re too lazy to become U.S. citizens, there are too many of them feeding off our welfare system/costing us taxpayers money, and they shouldn’t be able to get a job if employers would screen them out like they should.

Why not? First, there’s no route for an undocumented immigrant to apply for citizenship. The only ways to approach this are usually through employment, family reunification or humanitarian protection.

Second, we have a labor shortage going on and need workers. Plus, if they’re working, they’re not using the welfare system—to the contrary, because they usually provide false Social Security numbers to hold their jobs, the Social Security Administration collects money from them but doesn’t worry about whether it’s from a legit Social Security number. That means that those funds can never be tapped by those who contributed them—to put it bluntly, more money for us, not less. If Trump really wanted to crack down on illegal immigration, he could do this easily by auditing Social Security numbers. But this will likely never happen given that illegal immigrants are paying an estimated $13 billion a year in Social Security taxes.

Finally, while most Minnesota employers verify all job applicants’ identity and employment authorization through a federal form called an I-9, documents they’re provided may be good fakes. There’s also considerable criticism that the I-9 process itself is broken.

As a result, randomly conducted I-9 audits—or worse, raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—can often find at least a small percentage of illegal immigrants within a workforce. In addition, there’s the PR nightmare associated with a raid by gun-toting ICE agents.

Previous presidents tended to go after illegal immigrants who had committed crimes. Trump has vowed to go after all illegal immigrants, including those who could have been living in Minnesota for 15 or 20 years, have kids in local schools, have been paying their fair share of taxes (sales, property and other taxes, as well as Social Security) and contribute civically to their communities.

The potential to uproot individuals from their homes, jobs and families is part of the scope of our cover story this month. Minnesota’s rural communities have been making great strides integrating recent immigrants—from Somalia, Latin America, and elsewhere. But this new social fabric carefully woven by employers, community leaders, schoolteachers, politicians, and, of course, the immigrants themselves, could come unraveled.

Our coverage this month approaches this subject with a nonpartisan, business-oriented viewpoint, however, looking primarily at the potential economic impact in Minnesota should the Trump administration continue to seek out and deport undocumented immigrants, and reduce immigration into the United States. Our lead story looks at the ag and food processing sectors; the second story delves into what the issue could mean for the entire state.

Read more from this issue

We all know the labor supply is shrinking here. If you believe we should deport as many illegal immigrants as possible, how would you propose we fill the resulting labor gap? If you believe we should provide amnesty, why is it morally OK to say one group can get away with breaking the rules when the rest of us can’t? It’s a tricky subject, with many viewpoints. What are yours?

RELATED CONTENT – Immigration in Minnesota
Chapter One: Trepidation in the Heartland
Chapter Two: The Real Immigration Crisis

Related Stories