While studying immigration as an undergraduate at Iowa State University, Madeline Sturms toured a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in Perry, Iowa. She saw that Tyson Foods employed mostly Latino immigrants who worked long hours at difficult jobs, such as those slaughtering animals on the “kill floor.” She also saw how these jobs had transformed the once-ailing city of Perry. “I learned how the community was trying to take advantage of the diverse population by opening shops and restaurants to cater to this community,” she recalls. “It was exciting for a community that may have closed their store fronts and may have not had as much commercial activity in their downtown.”
The experience sparked Sturms’ interest in the role immigrant communities play in rural Iowa towns. Now a city planner in Pleasant Hill, Sturms recently received a master’s of public administration from Drake University, where she studied the extent to which Iowa towns worked to help immigrants assimilate into their communities. “We learned that many rural Iowa communities are on to their second or third waves of immigrants,” she says, noting that towns that originally attracted Latinos are now drawing Burmese and Laotian immigrants.
And today, that population uptick can happen if towns learn to attract new immigrants.
Sturms found that when towns embraced immigrants, dying communities were brought back to life, the wheels of commerce began to turn again, and everybody felt the rewards. This is true for small towns across the state, including Columbus Junction, Storm Lake, Denison and West Liberty, the first Iowa town with a majority-Latino population. “Their downtowns are now populated, or their downtowns have retail or service industries in storefronts that used to sit empty,” she says. “They now have markets and grocery stores and restaurants for these immigrant populations.”
Her observations square with national data. When immigrant groups move into a community, research shows that the community experiences a substantial boost in economic activity, jobs, and housing wealth. A 2013 study by the New American Economy (NAE) found that for every 1,000 immigrants living in a county, 46 manufacturing jobs are created or preserved. The presence of immigrants also helps end cycles of decline, attracting more natives in turn. The same NAE study found that every time 100 immigrants move to a county, 240 natives are attracted within the next decade.
Having seen the positive impact that immigrant communities have on rural Iowa, Sturms would like to see immigration reform that helps newcomers work in small towns, especially those that are struggling economically. “Many of the rural Iowa communities simply need more population in order to sustain,” she says. “And today, that population uptick can happen if towns learn to attract new immigrants.”