Ashley Cummins has lived in Russellville, Alabama, her entire life. When she was young, the downtown area was “full of people in the streets and in the shops,” she says. Slowly, though, the once-popular shopping district transformed into “a ghost town.”
“People just didn’t have the time and money to put into the upkeep,” says Cummins, who is head librarian of the Russellville Public Library. Fortunately, new job openings at a major poultry factory changed all that. “Suddenly we saw an influx of immigrants moving to the area looking for work, and they started opening little shops, grocery stores, furniture stores, restaurants, bakeries, places like that,” she says. “We’ve now seen the entire downtown area be brought back to life, and the majority of that revitalization can be attributed to the immigrants who moved here.”
We’ve been able to add a lot of resources that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to if it weren’t for the Hispanic population that comes in here.
It’s little surprise that the influx of immigrants spurred a revitalization in the small town, which saw its population rise an impressive 9.6 percent, to 9,830 residents, from 2000 to 2010. In Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District, located in a northern swath of the state that includes Russellville, foreign-born residents are far more likely to be of working age than are U.S.-born residents: 71 percent for immigrants compared with 51 percent for natives. And although there are only about 26,000 immigrants in the small district, 1,174 are entrepreneurs, making immigrants there 29 percent more likely than U.S.-born residents to open their own business. In total, foreign-born residents of the district held $291.4 million in spending power and paid $91.2 million in taxes in 2014.
In addition to helping restore local commerce, Russellville’s foreign-born population also helped breathe new life into the library. Of its 8,000 patrons, immigrants make up the majority of regular visitors, says Cummins. That’s a big deal. Keeping usage numbers high is what allows the library to receive its annual operating budget of $100,000 — money it uses to pay for salaries, special programs, and collections. “There are so many grants available for certain programming and collections if you have a large immigrant base,” says Cummins. “We’ve been able to add a lot of resources that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to if it weren’t for the Hispanic population that comes in here.”
Meanwhile, diligent student volunteers from immigrant families help keep the facility running smoothly, she says. One Latina high school senior so impressed the staff that they decided to start a scholarship fund in her honor. “We’d been thinking about implementing a scholarship for a while, but until her we just hadn’t had that one student who really stood out to us,” says Cummins, noting that the student is also a member of the National Honor Society and Junior ROTC. “She’s such a hard worker and very active in school. She’s just been fabulous for us, because she’s bilingual, which has allowed up to reach out to some of our patron base that we’d previously had trouble communicating with.”
Witnessing the many ways that Russellville has benefited from its immigrant population has made Cummins particularly sensitive to the need for immigration reform in the United States. She would like to see legislators prioritize reform that will ultimately keep families together, and not tear them apart, as can happen today. “Many people come into this country to escape the dangerous things that are happening in their own country,” she says. “So I wish people were more empathetic to that, and would recognize how hard immigrants do work once they get here.”