The Hispanic in-migration that’s revitalizing farm towns

Illustration by Neil Shrubb for Oregon Business
Illustration by Neil Shrubb for Oregon Business

At age 15, Jose Cuna Vera left his home in Queréndaro, a rural village in the Mexican state of Michoacán, and made his way to Oregon. He would have liked to continue his education, but the family couldn’t afford it. “Life is the best school for you now,” he remembers his grandfather advising. Cuna Vera worked a succession of farm-labor jobs in the onion and sugar-beet fields of Eastern Oregon, and earned enough to wire money back home on a regular schedule to help his financially struggling family.

That was in 1989. These days Cuna Vera and his wife, both naturalized U.S. citizens, own a house in Ontario, where they are raising three children. From his start as a farm laborer, Cuna Vera moved on to work in onion storage and packing sheds, then spent many years in restaurant work, where he learned to love cooking. “I feel so happy when people come to eat my food. I feel like I did something important,” he says. Last October he started his own food-truck business, Don Pepe. He caters to a lunch and dinner crowd from a parking spot near the Outdoorsman, the local big-box sporting goods store.

“We come with big dreams,” he said at the end of a busy week in September. “We’re starting with this little truck, but one of my goals is trying to do my own restaurant.”

The immigration debate tends to dwell on the problems of border control and undocumented workers. But in farm country across Oregon and the U.S., upwardly mobile immigrants, largely from Mexico, have revitalized small towns long threatened by the inexorable loss of young people, who imagine better futures in urban areas and relocate to launch careers and start families. The loss of working-age people can trigger a downward spiral as local businesses lose customers and a shrinking tax base leaves towns short of money for maintaining schools, roads, parks and other services. In many rural communities, more people are dying than are being born.

“Hispanic in-migration is what’s keeping them alive,” says John Green, director of the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Oregon’s immigrant population from Latin America nearly tripled during the 1990s and continued to grow at a much slower pace for the next 10 years. Contrary to popular perception, a majority of Oregon’s Latino newcomers were born in the United States. More than 60% are U.S.-born citizens, according to the Pew Research Center. “Many of the Hispanics migrating to rural areas are doing so from other places in the U.S.,” Green says.

While only a fraction of Hispanic people in Oregon are undocumented immigrants, the population has climbed steeply, from an estimated 110,000 in 2000 to about 160,000 today. Most are employed and pay taxes, but the revenues probably don’t cover the full cost to local and state governments for schools, hospitals and law enforcement, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The burden, however, is modest. Spending for undocumented immigrants typically amounts to less than 5% of total local and state spending on those services, the CBO authors concluded.

And undocumented workers contribute more than tax revenues. They work in low-skill, manual -labor jobs that employers could not fill without them. Their purchasing power fuels local economies. And in farm communities emptied of working-age natives, the contribution of undocumented immigrants is magnified.

In Ontario, a town of fewer than 12,000, Latinos have accounted for all of the population growth since 2000. The non-Hispanic population dropped by nearly 10%, while the Hispanic or Latino-origin population grew by more than 33% between 2000 and 2010, as measured by the U.S. Census.

“They have started new businesses. Some run their own farms now. In years past, they were more of a migrant group,” says Ontario Mayor LeRoy Cammack. “These people have come to become permanent citizens of the community.”

Hispanic newcomers similarly prevented population losses in Boardman, Cornelius, Nyssa, Odell and Woodburn. In each of these small, rural communities, the number of people with Mexican or other Latin American roots now outnumbers non-Hispanic residents.

“People think we’re here to beg; we’re here to take. The truth is we’re here to contribute,” says Diego Castellanoz, whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico and settled in Nyssa, a town surrounded by sugar-beet fields near the Idaho border. Castellanoz, a city councilman and former town mayor, is a supervisor with the Amalgamated Sugar Company, where he’s worked for 30 years.

Nyssa’s Hispanic population grew by more than 9% between 2000 and 2010. Now nearly two-thirds of residents are Hispanic. “People here have seen what we can contribute. We have been embraced,” Castellanoz says. “We are like everyone else. We want to own a home, we want good schools. We want our kids to make a decent living.”

The demographic turnover in small towns hasn’t proceeded without conflict. As established as the Latino community is in Nyssa, Castellanoz says Spanish-speaking newcomers still face some mistrust and discrimination.

In Ontario, Mayor Cammack says the Latino and non-Latino residents remain divided. The town’s more established residents aren’t widely aware of the extent to which Latino newcomers have propped up the local economy and tax base. At the same time, he says, people in the Latino community haven’t opened up to the broader community, for instance, by taking part in community affairs or trying to attract non-Latinos to their businesses. “They cater to the Latino population,” he says.

In Cornelius, a farm town about 25 miles east of Portland, officials have launched a variety of efforts to integrate Latinos into the community, including Spanish-language town hall meetings, public library books and materials tailored for Latinos, and outreach to invite Latinos to volunteer as leaders on city boards and commissions.

“We feel it is important to have public positions more accurately reflect the population that we serve,” says city councilman Jose Orozco. The Latino population of Cornelius pushed past 50% in 2010, up from 37% in 2000.

In the years ahead, rural areas may not be able to rely on immigrants to stop population declines. The Great Recession triggered a dramatic end to the flow of workers from Latin America. The number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, then fell by about a million people during the recession and shows no sign of rising, the Pew Research Center reported in September. With Mexico’s maturing economy, growing middle class and increasing employment prospects, ambitious young people feel less of a pull to go North, and many who tried working in the U.S. have returned home to stay for good.

[This article first appeared in Oregon Business as part of a broad report on immigration that I produced for the magazine in November 2014.]

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