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Immigrant Farm Workers Offset Population Loss in an Illinois Small Town

The town of Rantoul, Illinois, used to be home to a U.S. Air Force base. Ever since the base shut down, in 1993, the community has struggled to rebuild its population. Meanwhile, a growing agriculture industry has attracted immigrants, primarily from Mexico, who travel north to work in the corn fields. “It’s a relatively new growth, but it seems to have helped population stabilize,” says Steven Lowe, a science and engineering teacher at Rantoul Township High School.

Lowe has watched his classes become more diverse in recent years, and he has seen the town benefit from the contributions of its immigrant population. “Migrant workers wanted to stay as agriculture jobs grew, and realized that Rantoul was a good place to put down roots, with a low cost of living, nice community facilities, and high quality of life,” he says. “But now, immigrants are contributing to a number of industries, particularly as small business owners. They’re in construction, manufacturing, car dealers, restaurants owners, grocery store owners — it’s very well-rounded.” In fact, in the rural southeast Illinois congressional district that serves Rantoul, immigrants make up just 1.6 percent of the population but own 268 businesses that support the local economy and pay $75.2 million in annual taxes, according to New American Economy research.

If we don’t support these families, we’re losing talent and losing a different perspective.

In 2014, Lowe and a fellow teacher received approval from the school board to start an after-school soccer program, which has attracted a large number of Hispanic students. With school-district funding low, the program bootstrapped and self-funded its first year. Lowe and his colleague were very impressed that Rantoul’s Hispanic population came out in force for the program. “They really helped us out,” he says. “There’s a local grocery store in town that’s owned by a Hispanic family, and they donated a large portion of our start-up fees.”

As Lowe and other teachers prepare their students for life after high school, they’re fielding more questions from immigrant students, and even first-generation American students, who feel uncertain about their futures in the United States, especially after the 2016 election. “We have a few families who have already moved away, likely back to Texas or Mexico,” he says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it’s hard to see that in kids who were born here and who thrive here. They have the same dreams — my students want to be architects, engineers, designers. If we don’t support these families, we’re losing talent and losing a different perspective.”

Lowe would like to see reform that provides security to children of undocumented immigrants and a path to legalization for people who are not taking part in criminal activity. “These families put their best foot forward, they came here to find opportunity and to make more of themselves,” he says. “They’re productive members of society.  We need to encourage that kind of work ethic and embrace these young people who are fighting for a better future. Isn’t that the definition of the American Dream?”

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