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A New American Dream: The Rise of Immigrants in Rural America

On a sultry August afternoon, the small, rural village of Appleton, NY quietly stirred under the mid-day sun. Within the village lies a family fruit farm, located just outside the glistening waters of Lake Ontario. A brawny, middle-aged American farmworker gradually winded his way through the lines of thick fruit trees, from sweet cherries to apricots to Japanese plums. With streams of sweat soaking into his clinging shirt, he meticulously picked out the ripest and juiciest fruits for this season’s harvest.

“I don’t think it’s difficult,” he casually told me over the phone, “I’ve done it for so many years.”

For the past three decades, he has continuously tended the farm and lived much of his life there. Now, he resides in a nearby house with his beloved wife and four children.

The name of the American farmworker is Ruben Gomar. He is originally from Mexico and just earned his American citizenship this past summer. He loves living in the United States, and works a job that few native-born Americans are willing to take.

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Gomar is part of a recent, growing trend in rural America: Since the 1990s, immigrants have migrated to rural areas at unprecedented rates, accounting for 37 percent of overall rural growth from 2000 to 2018. They come and fill crucial roles vacated by native-born Americans, ranging from the much-needed labor force in agricultural industries to the vital healthcare professionals in underserved regions.

Although immigrants make valuable contributions to rural society, they are not necessarily well-treated nor particularly welcomed by locals. Immigrant farmworkers are often prone to exploitation and abuse in the workplace, with little power to improve their situation due to the lack of farmworker labor rights. Anti-immigrant sentiments also pervade rural communities, often giving rise to a misconceived fear of foreigners. Nevertheless, the upsurge of immigrants has inarguably helped revitalize dying towns, even saving some from collapse.

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The village of Greenport, NY, located along the North Fork peninsula of Long Island, is a paradigm of immigrant revitalization. After World War II, the village suffered through a grim period of economic decline and stagnation as it degraded into a “dumpy, corrupt East End dead end”, as The New York Times once described it.

This all turned around in the 1990s, when an energetic and passionate mayor, David Kapell, kickstarted projects ranging from carousels to power plants that opened employment opportunities in blue-collar fields such as construction, housing, and landscaping. Hispanic immigrants quickly flooded in to restore Greenport’s working class, escalating the Hispanic population from four percent to 34 percent in just two decades.

“[Immigrants] are consumers. They come in, end up buying groceries, buying houses, and manage to keep the market going in these places where otherwise there wouldn’t be much demand,” Jennifer Van Hook, professor of sociology and demography at The Pennsylvania State University, told The Politic.

The effects of the burgeoning immigration population are not purely limited to economic benefits. Immigrants breathe fresh life into crumbling societies, helping to avert the buildup of a disproportionately elderly population, livening up schools, and increasing cultural diversity.

“They’ve saved this town,” said Kapell, as quoted from the book Village of Immigrants.

Over the past couple of decades, the majority of rural counties across America have experienced a large decline in population, as younger people migrate towards urban centers in search for greater job and academic opportunities. According to Pew Research Center, 68 percent of rural counties had more people migrate out of the area than into the area from 2000 to 2014.

“There’s been this shift in manufacturing and agricultural practices,” said Van Hook. Rural industries have become progressively corporate-dominated and increasingly reliant on automation and less on human capital. Small family businesses often flounder in the face of direct competition from large-scale operations, pushing native-born workers to seek more lucrative opportunities in the cities and suburbs.

The repercussions of widespread population loss in rural areas can be devastating, as businesses, schools, and hospitals are forced to cut budgets or even shut down, further diminishing incentives to remain or migrate into rural areas.

However, despite the rising abandonment of rural homes, many waves of immigrants have come to reinvigorate towns such as Greenport. Over the last 35 years, Headwaters Economics found that two-fifths of rural western counties can attribute the mitigation or reversal of population decline to an increasing minority population.

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The surge of immigration into rural areas has been correlated with the abundance of jobs in working-class occupations such as manufacturing and agriculture. The farming industry is especially reliant on immigrants to take on labor jobs including harvesting crops, tending livestock, and packing meat. According to the 2014 National Agricultural Workers Survey, 73 percent of all farmworkers are foreign-born.

In upstate New York, Gomar himself works as a seasonal fruit picker. In the winter, he spends most of his time pruning trees, enhancing their growth and vigor for when they bloom. At this time, he works about nine hours per day making 10 to 12 dollars per hour, roughly minimum wage. However, over the summer during harvesting season, these hours can become much longer, and he has no right to overtime pay due to the exclusion of farmworkers from common federal labor laws. When most fruit trees on the farm have blossomed, including cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, and nectarines, they all need to be rapidly harvested in order to meet market demands.

“I’m pretty much working all the time, so I see very few people…I stay in the fields, stay in the orchards, I talk to the trees,” Gomar said jokingly.

The labor can be long and exhausting, and given the poor pay, he often struggles to provide financially for his family. When one of his younger children needed a dentist appointment, it was far too expensive for him to afford, and his insurance didn’t cover enough for it. Gomar also worries that he won’t be able to pay for his oldest son’s college expenses.

Although Gomar longs for a job with a higher salary, language and financial barriers restrict the possibility of upward mobility, even after spending nearly three decades working in the U.S. and obtaining citizenship.

“In my position, my English isn’t good enough for [other] work. I would really like to make something for myself, but I can’t afford it and my language isn’t good enough to create my own business,” Gomar told me. “I’m stuck here for now, but what can I do? I’ve got to take care of my kids and wife.”

Despite the low wages, Gomar is still appreciative for his farmworker job, and he hopes that more immigrants like him will come to work for the farm.

“I really need [immigrants], you know, because the Americans…do you think the Americans are gonna wanna pick apples?” Gomar asked, chuckling at the thought. “Man, Mexicans work for a little bit of money, but it’s a lot [to them]. They cross the border and break the law to come here, and it’s the only way to get enough [workers].”

At the close of the interview with Gomar, he asked teasingly, “Are you gonna send me a big check? I need money for this!”

According to immigration attorney Jose Perez, the agricultural industry heavily depends on undocumented immigrants to satisfy its labor needs, and it will continue to do so if comprehensive immigration reform remains unaccomplished.

“The Farm Bureau has said that they need about two million farm workers in order for them to be able to do everything that is required in the agricultural industry,” Perez told The Politic. Do you know how many visas are actually issued for migrant workers? Not even 200,000.”

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Despite the reliance of farms on immigrant employees, foreign-born farmworkers are often subject to exploitation by their employers, including being given low paychecks that barely meet minimum wage, working long hours with no right to a day of rest, and living in hazardous and abusive working conditions. In spite of this oppressive treatment, very few workers are willing to speak out about it. The vast majority suffer in silence.

Librada Paz, a fierce activist for farmworker rights and recipient of the 2012 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, was just a 15-year-old girl when she fled to the U.S. from Mexico and began picking tomatoes on a farm in Ohio.

“The living conditions were very tight and very crowded. There were no separate rooms for men or women—we were all sleeping on the floor sharing one or two rooms. There was no privacy,” Paz recounted to The Politic.

Licensed, employer-owned houses are legally required to abide with minimum housing standards, but only 17 percent of the total farmworker population reside in such places. A great deal of migrant workers must instead live in substandard housing conditions. According to Perez, it is common for 12 to 16 people to be cramped inside a single trailer, with no space to even pace through the hallway.

Female farmworkers especially suffer from labor abuses, as they are generally given the least wanted jobs, are more likely to get laid off, and are at increased risk of sexual violence.

Paz herself is a victim and survivor. While on the farm, she was sexually assaulted by the contractors, leaving her feeling utterly helpless and alone.

“I was so shy. I did not tell anybody about it. I did not even tell my sister. I did not even tell my brother. I was scared, I was afraid, I was embarrassed about what happened, because I felt it was my fault,” said Paz.

The power dynamic between employers and their subordinates in the male-dominated farm industry allows employers to take advantage of farmworkers with little to no consequences. A study which surveyed female farmworkers in California found that 80 percent of the respondents had experienced sexual harassment, with 22 percent never daring to tell a single other person.

Farmworkers and their employers are also reluctant to report injuries, even when it can be life-threatening. Paz recalled an incident where a farmworker was forcefully kicked in the chest by a cow, leaving him severely injured and needing critical care. His employer said that he would get somebody to take him to the hospital, but it was no more than an empty promise. The farmworker waited in excruciating pain for days on end, until his employer simply ordered, “I need you to go to work.” He never got to go to the hospital.

Agricultural labor is already one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, farm workers were fatally injured at a rate seven times higher than the national average.

Perez also has “stories, and stories, and stories” of farm employers who take advantage of workers’ undocumented status, often coercing them into avoiding treatment or lying about their injury. They might threaten, “If you go to the hospital, the migra [border control] is going to get you. If you say you were working, the migra is going to come and kick you and your family out of the ranch. So don’t say that. Say that you fell off a bike or something.”

It has been estimated that 77.6 percent of farm-related injuries and illnesses go unreported, partly due to immigrant farmworkers’ lack of information about receiving healthcare treatment.

On the other hand, farm owners argue that they simply cannot afford to improve farmworker benefits. In recent years, the incomes of farm owners have been steadily falling while labor costs have continued to rise. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, farm profits plummeted by $1 billion in 2015. The New York Farm Bureau president David Fisher said that adding in overtime pay would cost farms “nearly half of overall farm income”.

Despite being a farmworker himself, Gomar is sympathetic towards farm owners’ struggles. “Man, farmers used to not spend that much money. Right now, they spend millions, millions of dollars to get [temporary visa workers] to get the harvest done,” he said.

However, Perez remains unconvinced that farm owners cannot afford to improve the safety and job benefits of farmers. “The reality is, you can improve living conditions, improve working conditions, improve safety without hurting the bottom line of these companies. The problem is, as long as there are no real penalties against these farms…then it’s just a slap on the wrist,” said Perez.

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Immigrant workers may suffer through dismal conditions, but the comparatively higher wages in the U.S. still incentivize immigrants seeking employment opportunities. Abundant opportunities in the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and meatpacking industries have all attracted immigrants to rural areas.

Immigration isn’t just limited to blue-collared jobs, however; employment opportunities for healthcare professionals have also brought in surges of immigrants, especially professionals seeking permanent residency. In total, there is an estimated 10,000 foreign-born physicians practicing in rural areas.

Hong Cui is one such rural physician. Originally a medical doctor from Beijing, China, he ultimately migrated to Lincoln, Nebraska where he obtained his citizenship while completing a medical residency program. For several years, he provided medical care for rural communities in Richardson County, at the southeast corner of Nebraska.

“In rural areas, hospitals offer attractive packages for immigrants. People without permanent residency, who have like a J-1 or H-1B non-immigrant visa tend to work over here, and the hospital will help them get approved [for] citizenship or permanent residency,” Cui told The Politic.

Currently, rural areas face a severe shortage of doctors and medical facilities. Rural residents also tend to be older and have lower incomes than their urban counterparts, rendering them more likely to suffer from poorer health.

At Cui’s hospital in Richardson County, patients could live up to 50 miles away, making travel time-consuming and inconvenient. Rural patients may fail to reach hospitals quickly enough in life-or-death emergencies, feel reluctant to travel long distances for routine checkups, or lack access to important specialists such as OB/GYN doctors.

A 2002 study found that in rural areas, victims of 30 percent of fatal vehicle crashes waited more than an hour before arriving at hospitals, as opposed to 8.3 percent in urban areas.

Cui, who had only received professional training for family medicine, found himself providing far more specialized care than the average family doctor. He had to be prepared for anything, from excising infected tissues of trauma wounds to delivering babies via C-section surgeries. These procedures are usually performed by physicians with several more years of rigorous medical training, but because there is such a severe shortage of specialized physicians in rural areas, the heavy responsibility of providing urgent, life-saving treatments often falls onto the shoulders of family doctors.

“In the operating room, they might say, ‘Hey, you’re gonna do a C-section.’ And you look around, and you’re like the captain of a ship. You feel the pressure. If something happened, you’re the only one there,” Cui told The Politic.

There were no surgeons to help, no specialists to guide him. Despite his lack of specialized training, Cui was the only person the patients had to deliver their babies, see them through emergencies, and treat their violent trauma injuries.

Even with the dire health situation in many rural places, the lack of urban amenities can discourage native-born doctors to practice in rural areas. Cui made a four- to five-hour trek every week in order to travel back and forth between his rural workplace and his suburban home in Lincoln. Eventually, living separated from his family became too much to bear, and he left his rural job to work in a much larger hospital in the state capital, closer to the comfort of his wife and children.

As such, foreign doctors are often the ones to fill in these gaps, bringing vital care to underserved rural populations while also expediting their own long-winded immigration process.

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Immigrants have become crucial in a diverse array of rural sectors, from agriculture to business to healthcare. Native communities, however, are still hesitant to welcome them with open arms, as residents may find it troubling to see entrenched social systems begin to evolve. Local policymakers have responded in mixed ways, ranging from actively integrating immigrants into their communities to employing anti-immigration rhetoric and pandering to nativist sentiment.

A survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that approximately three times more rural residents than city residents believed immigrants posed a burden to the nation, although these views tend to subside in rural communities with significant proportions of immigrants.

Alexis Ball ‘22, who is from Lima, Ohio, told The Politic, “I come from a very rural area where I would say the majority of our population is just white, and I think that has a very big impact because they don’t necessarily meet anyone from a different race, so they have this fear of newness and new people…Sometimes I think they use that fear as a rallying tactic to make our town more together.”

Over the past couple of decades, fears of immigrants have emerged near the town of Worthington, Minnesota, which had only avoided regressing into a ghost town when surges of Hispanic immigrants flooded in to revitalize the city. The Hispanic population ultimately soared by 75 percent. Now, more than one third of the population is Hispanic, but this sudden and drastic demographic change has fostered uneasiness and fear among nearby residents.

“There’s not a lot of evidence that immigrants bring crime, but there’s fear that they do,” said Van Hook. “There was fear of crime in Worthington, Minnesota, and it was mostly by the people who didn’t live there. They lived outside of the town, they didn’t really know who the immigrants were, they didn’t have relationships with them…so they feared them. They started believing these stories that go around that [immigrants] are committing crimes.”

Crime rates, however, show that these fears are misconceived, as immigration to Worthington has only brought down crime rates, if anything. FBI statistics cited that the town has had fewer misdemeanors and felonies than its neighboring towns for virtually all of the past decade, and there hasn’t been any significant gang activity in Worthington since 1996.

Nonetheless, the cycle of fear persists and remains a challenge to break. A notable example occurred several years ago, when a false rumor broke out that there were criminals creeping beneath the cars of a local mall in Worthington, waiting to slash the ankles of unsuspecting passersby. In order to disprove the made-up rumor, the city administrator publicly released hospital records depicting zero occurrences of such injuries, but it did little to change people’s rooted beliefs.

“That story went forever,” former Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh told Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

Van Hook believes these anti-immigrant notions can only be broken down through direct interactions and forming direct connections. “Having those personal relationships makes a big difference,” she said.

Regardless of the stance on immigration, research has shown that diversity in rural areas is already self-sustaining—minority populations will continue to rise even without further immigration. And just as the European and Asian immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries faced discrimination and exclusion, the current wave of predominantly Latin American and Asian immigrants also struggle to overcome the complicated obstacles barring acceptance into communities. The fate of this new generation rests on the decisions of an increasingly polarized society—and whether immigrants will be embraced and integrated into society, or rejected and pushed out to deepen the racial divide, remains uncertain.

In the meantime, Gomar and Cui are both personally content with their respective local communities. Although much of the negative sentiments towards immigrants may exist covertly, neither one of them had experienced any overt hostility.

“Even though [Nebraska] is very conservative, the people are very nice.,” Cui said. “Personally, I did not experience any discrimination. I’m sure it’s there, however, but I haven’t experienced it.”

Gomar, too, felt he had been treated well. “I don’t see anybody discriminating [against immigrants],” he told me wryly. “If I said that, I would probably be lying to you, and I don’t want to lie.”