As the program director of Main Street Guymon, a resource center dedicated to helping businesses in the small city of Guymon, Oklahoma, succeed, Melyn Johnson has unique insight into what allows her community to thrive. Since its founding in 2005, her group has accumulated roughly $10 million in private funding. Today it supports more than 100 businesses in the city’s downtown. But Johnson says communities like hers could still benefit mightily from immigration reform. “In Guymon, we talk in farming terms,” says Johnson, whose congressional district is flush with farmland used for everything from cattle feedlots and corporate pork farms to wind energy and transmission. “And whatever your stance on immigration reform, the fact is that a farmer is always more successful if he’s diversified, and the same is true for our country.”
Johnson credits Seaboard Foods, an integrated food company and major pork producer that opened a plant in Guymon, as playing a major role in diversifying her hometown. When the location opened in the early ‘90s, creating 2,700 jobs, the promise of steady employment drew thousands of immigrants and their families to this panhandle town, inciting an economic boom. The plant was designed to handle 5.5 million animals annually.
“Our unemployment rate is very low, and many of our employers have never been at full employment,” says Johnson. “So we couldn’t have filled those jobs without them. Even now, we still don’t have enough people to fill all the available jobs we have.”
If not for immigrants moving to Guymon to work at the pork plants, Johnson says, businesses downtown ‘would probably be empty because our population would be half what it is today.’
The downtown district, where Main Street Guymon is located, also experienced an economic revitalization, thanks to the influx of foreigners. “For whatever reason, there were fewer businesses downtown until the immigrant populations came in,” says Johnson. “Were it not for Seaboard coming here, those places would probably be empty because our population would be half what it is today. And the more people you have, the more goods are bought. It’s simple math.”
In addition to promoting the growth of downtown businesses, Main Street Guymon also fosters community fellowship through events like Azuma, a heritage festival to celebrate the city’s more than 500 African immigrants (the Oklahoma Travel Industry Association and Oklahoma Main Street both named it one of the state’s “best new events”). The group also offers training and networking events for small business owners, support groups for people with diabetes, dementia, and other health conditions, and classes on topics such as amateur photography. It’s no wonder readers of the Guymon Daily Herald named Main Street Guymon the “Best Service Club” in town.
“I don’t want to forget how we became powerful,” explains Johnson, when asked what motivates her work and interest in reforming the immigration process, “and that was by growing, accepting, and being open to other people.” Our current system, she says, “hinders everything it touches.”
“We have to figure out a way to be more accessible and efficient,” says Johnson. “Which I know is a huge task. But the federal government manages to make me pay my taxes every year, so why can’t U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services get their paperwork done in timely manner? Keeping people in limbo is inhuman. It prevents them from being educated, which keeps them in manual labor jobs, which isn’t fair. They deserve the equal opportunity to educate themselves.”