The Missouri Bootheel, in the far southeastern corner of Missouri, is not known for its immigrants, who account for just 1.3 percent of the population. But Sunday mass at St. Cecilia’s Parish in Kennett is full of foreign-born worshippers. Of the 250 families who attend the church, roughly two-thirds are Hispanic and 5 percent are Filipino. The Rev. Daniel Robles, who was born in Mexico, says many are immigrants who came to Missouri for agriculture work that U.S.-born Americans didn’t want to do. “The Latino community is great for the local economy,” the pastor says.
Robles, the son of a farmer and one of eight children, came to Missouri in 1998, sent by his seminary in Mexico to learn English. He went on to complete a master’s degree at Saint Meinrad Seminary, a Benedictine institution in southern Indiana, before becoming the pastor of two small Catholic parishes — St. Cecilia, and also St. Eustachius, in nearby Portageville.
Many people “don’t want to work for $8 an hour, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., in July or August, in 110- or 120-degree heat,” he says. “But Mexican-born workers will take that wage. The major thing they’re here for is the opportunity to work.” That’s a “double win,” Robles says. “It’s a win for the Latino community, who are grateful to be employed. But it’s also a win for the farmers.”
With the first 13 colonies, people came from Europe for the pursuit of happiness and better lives.
Latinos are revitalizing the local economy in other ways, too. Robles recalls how, soon after he arrived in the area, he tried to make tacos de cabeza for a church fundraiser, but was unable to find beef cheeks or tongue in local stores. He ended up at a slaughterhouse, where a bemused manager explained that they usually threw away the heads, and so gave him some for free. Soon, however, the slaughterhouse saw a business opportunity, and started charging for the heads — first $20, then $30 apiece. Now, Robles says, you can walk into any Walmart near St Cecilia, and buy beef cheeks or tongue for three times that price — a sign of how Hispanic consumers have created opportunities for local business. “It’s all part of how we boost the economy,” he says.
Like the local beef producers, other businesses are also prospering thanks to the new arrivals. The immigrants who live in Missouri’s Eighth Congressional District have a combined spending power of $170 milion and pay $58.3 million in taxes annually.
As Hispanic people put down roots, they’re finding other ways to give back to the community. “We have people who work in the fields, but we also have people who have their own businesses — restaurant owners, or construction workers who own their own companies,” Robles says. And while many local farmworkers are foreign-born, their children are often U.S. citizens who become educated, and make positive contributions as teachers, doctors, and lawyers. “I always say, the best opportunity to have a better life is through education,” Robles says. “Thank God there’s a new generation of Latino kids who are going to college.”
Robles says he wants everyone who comes to the United States to follow the proper immigration procedures. But he also believes that policymakers should do their part by providing a practical, effective visa system for less-skilled people. “Right now, to get a working visa is almost impossible. We put all these laws in the way, making it hard for people to come legally,” he says. “If they could come here, and work legally, and then go back, that would be much better.”
The same goes for undocumented immigrants. “These people are making a contribution to the economy, and they’re working hard,” Robles says. As just one example, undocumented immigrants generated a $100 billion surplus in the Social Security program in the last decade and a $35.1 billion surplus in the Medicare trust fund from 2000 to 2011. “I’d say that we should be able to give them an opportunity to make their living in a legal way. Nobody wants to risk their life crossing the desert,” he says. “People do it because they need to.”
Robles believes this kind of determination and optimism is quintessentially American. “Immigrants come because they’re looking for a better life,” he says. “That’s what happened with the first 13 colonies: People came from Europe for the pursuit of happiness and better lives and economic opportunities. That’s the root of the United States, and those things haven’t changed.”