The immigrant community in Henderson is small, but it is growing faster than any other group. The county’s Hispanic and Latino community, for example, increased by 0.5 percentage points between 2010 and 2016, according to the United States Census Bureau. That might not sound like a lot — until you compare it to the stagnant growth of whites (0.0 percentage points) and African Americans (0.1 percentage points). Last year at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, “we baptized more Hispanics than we did Anglos,” says Abraham Brown, a first-generation Mexican-American and the director of the church’s Hispanic Ministry.
In fact, it wasn’t until the regional chamber of commerce formed a Latino chamber alliance this year that Brown realized how great a presence Hispanics were in the community. “When we started the alliance, we created a list of Latino-owned businesses and that’s when we realized that there were close to 100 different organizations,” he says. In Kentucky’s First Congressional District, which encompasses a southwestern pocket of the state and includes Henderson, there are 465 immigrant-owned businesses, and they demonstrate an entrepreneurial drive that was clearly highlighted when the Southwest Indiana Chamber’s Latino Chamber Alliance held its first meeting. “What we found out,” says Brown, “is that this is a population that is engaged and that wants to be active participants in our community.”
Brown says he knows a lot of Latinos who work at area poultry farms, landscaping businesses, retail stories like T.J. Maxx, and restaurants. Although immigrants make up just 1.8 percent of the district’s population, they comprise 6 percent of the workforce in the entertainment and hospitality industries. He even owns one such business, a Mexican restaurant called La Campirana, located in nearby Evansville, Indiana. “My foreign-born employees are some of the hardest workers I have,” Brown says. In addition, immigrants in the district hold $178.3 million in spending power and pay $61.1 million in taxes.
This is a population that is engaged and that wants to be active participants in our community.
Brown also gives his time to organizations that help newcomers better assimilate, so that they, too, can contribute to the best of their ability. He serves on boards advising an area community college and advising the mayor of Evansville, a nearby town where Brown runs an annual health fair for the Latino community. He also publishes the Tri-State’s first Spanish newspaper, El Informador Latino, helps Latinos and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students attend college, and provides ESL classes for adults. “When we help them fully invest into this community, that in turn enhances the community,” Brown says.
Accelerating immigrants’ English proficiency, as Brown works to do, also benefits the regional and national economies. Studies show that a lack of English skills is the largest contributor to underemployment and a major contributor to unemployment in the immigrant population. Combined, these factors rob the U.S. economy of tens of billions of dollars in spending power and deprive federal and state governments of billions of dollars in annual tax revenue.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about immigrants, says Brown, is the notion that they came to America without first trying to go through legal channels. “They think they wanted to come here undocumented and never even looked for another option,” he says. “But when we surveyed our undocumented community, 90 percent said they tried to come here legally. They just weren’t able to secure a visa or were told the wait would be more than 10 years. When a family is desperate for help and they don’t have a viable path to becoming documented, they feel like there’s no other option.” Brown adds that undocumented immigrants contribute a lot of money to the public coffers even though they don’t qualify for most public benefits. For example, undocumented immigrants in America paid an estimated $21 billion in taxes in 2014, $16.9 billion of which went toward the Medicare and Social Security funds, which they are ineligible to draw from.
Look around Henderson and Evansville, Brown says, and it’s unmistakable the degree to which all immigrants, regardless of their legal status, have helped revitalize previously rundown neighborhoods, by buying homes and opening shops. Housing wealth in America has increased by $3.7 trillion in recent decades as a result of the $40 million immigrants who have bought homes in neighborhoods just like these.
The Henderson-Evansville area has been extremely welcoming toward immigrants, Brown says, and he commends city officials for their outreach. “There’s a good atmosphere here and that’s very, very important,” he says. “I would like to encourage other leaders to replicate their welcoming behavior. It has helped our community grow, and it will help other communities grow as well.”