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Small Farm Town in Central Illinois Embraces Immigrants and Prospers

In the aftermath of a state budget crisis, Tim Flavin’s government-funded immigration and minority service group, Mi Raza, almost had to shut down. But the Arcola, Illinois, organization stayed open thanks to a generous outpouring from the very community it served. Immigrants who took classes at Mi Raza donated to a GoFundMe campaign and gave gift cards so the organization could purchase supplies. Local businesses that were founded by immigrants or relied on immigrant workers “came together and gave us about half of our budget,” says Flavin.

Arcola residents flocked to support Mi Raza because they understood how crucial the immigrant community has been to the town’s success. Without the immigrant population, Arcola would be “a dead-on-the-vine town like many rural communities in the Midwest,” says Flavin.

Many small towns in central Illinois are dying as people move to cities with more job opportunities, he says. The opening of big-box stores has forced local shops to close. Flavin lives in a neighboring town where “we’ve lost almost all our businesses: A grocery story, a restaurant, a gas station, a hardware store, and a library” are all gone, he says. “The only places that create sales tax are two taverns.”

But Arcola represents the exception to the rule. The reason, says Flavin: Immigrants. The farm town is home to two broom corporations and a cap and gown manufacturer, both of which have stayed open because the town has welcomed an immigrant population. Based on Flavin’s observations, the cap and gown company’s workforce is primarily Latino, while one broom company is about 90 percent Latino and the other is about 30 percent Latino.

Most of the Arcola Latino population is from the same town in Mexico, he explains. Because the town has embraced them, other immigrants from around the world have made their way to the region, as well. Mi Raza has assisted people from Arcola and neighboring towns. These people hail from 22 different Spanish-speaking countries as well as from India, China, Russia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and parts of Africa.

Many who worked at local corporations have risen in the ranks, and many others have left to form their own businesses. “We just had a meat market open this year,” says Flavin. “Immigrants have also opened grocery stores, restaurants and a mechanic shop that employs 10 people. Some residents from India own two restaurants, two hotels and a gas station.”

Immigrants have integrated into society, restored the town’s economy, and revitalized a culture centered on family and community. Arcola now is a place where “the best qualities of a small town meet the best qualities of a city,” says Flavin. “Everything we need is here. We have diverse cuisine. At the same time you can walk everywhere. You can leave your car unlocked.”

It is a world Flavin would never have predicted when he was a kid in a neighboring town. Flavin grew up on a farm, attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and worked in the local banking industry for 22 years. He eventually served as a bank president, a town mayor, and a farm manager, overseeing corn, soybean, wheat, and other crops. Flavin joined Mi Raza in 2005 and has seen how a community that equips immigrants becomes a community that thrives.

Flavin supports immigration reform because he believes it will allow hardworking families to contribute more fully and to revitalize the national economy, just as he has seen in Arcola. The gifts of empowered immigrant communities, he says, “have blown me away.”

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