A global community in rural Minnesota
A visit to Worthington, Minn., shows a rural community that has welcomed immigrants and thrived as a result
Published July 18, 2018
It wouldn’t be controversial to say that immigration is controversial. But in Worthington, Minn., the citizens of the city of about 13,000 speak with a fairly unified voice: Immigration is good for our economy.
That’s the message that Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari heard when he traveled there in mid-July to learn about how immigration has affected the city in southwestern Minnesota about 60 miles from the South Dakota border. While in Worthington, Kashkari and Bank staff participated in a community forum about the immigrant experience on the eve of the town’s International Festival. They also held a listening session with immigrant entrepreneurs and toured a large meat packing plant—the city’s biggest employer, whose labor force is largely made up of immigrants—sitting down with a diverse array of workers there to hear about their experiences.
Previous outreach trips have focused on the broad economies of Ninth District communities, including meetings with a cross section of businesses and individuals that make a place tick. But July’s visit was centered more narrowly on the subject of immigration and its effect on regional demographics and livelihoods of communities like Worthington: smaller-to-medium-sized population centers in rural areas.
Worthington provided an illustrative example of these trends, and Bank staff decided to go there to see how the community—natives and nonnatives—were dealing with this demographic evolution. It turned out to portray a model of how to create a welcoming and inclusive community for new immigrants.
Like many rural communities in the district and beyond, Worthington saw a long period of population decline beginning in the mid-20th century. This decline continued until the late 1980s and suddenly rebounded, as illustrated in Chart 1, which shows the annual population estimates for surrounding Nobles County. (Worthington is the county seat and accounts for three-fifths of the county population.)
The rebound coincided roughly with the beginning of the flow of new immigrants. (The word “new” has to be stressed, because the area around Worthington, like much of rural America, was settled by an earlier wave of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) Many of the early immigrants in this new period were Hmong and Laotian. “This really started with the churches 40 years ago; they started to sponsor and invite refugees from Southeast Asia,” said Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle, reflecting on how the city became more diverse.
By the year 2000, nearly 16 percent of Worthington’s population was foreign born. But the influx of immigrants has really accelerated since the turn of the millennium. As of 2016, the most recent year for which Census data are available, nearly one-third of Worthington residents were born overseas. Chart 2 illustrates how crucial immigration has been to the city’s overall growth.
Since 2000, Worthington’s population has grown 17 percent, and the county population has increased 5 percent. By comparison, population growth for all nonmetro Minnesota counties was less than 2 percent over the same period, and the native-born population of Worthington and Nobles County actually fell.
But why are so many immigrants coming to Worthington? One obvious reason is economic opportunity. That is reflected in the growth of the labor force along with the population, as shown in Chart 3. Unemployment in the county averaged 3.2 percent in 2017, lower than the state rate. This again stands in contrast to many rural counties, which typically have higher unemployment rates than the state.
Many new arrivals start out working at the JBS hog processing plant, where Minneapolis Fed staff took a tour and met with workers. The plant employs more than 2,200 workers, and because the work is hard, the turnover is high and there are frequent openings. Human Resources Manager Len Bakken, who shared a stage at the community forum with Kashkari, said the plant hires 15 people a week. The current starting wage is about $15 an hour.
Not all new residents end up at the plant, however. Miguel Rivas, who moved to Worthington from El Salvador in 1999, started out milking cows and worked a variety of jobs before starting his business selling computers and then cell phones. Many of Rivas’ customers are Hispanic, a community that now constitutes Worthington’s largest demographic group, accounting for two-fifths of the city population (including both native and foreign-born Hispanics) and just barely edging out non-Hispanic whites by a few tenths of a percent.
Rivas, along with other immigrant business owners, discussed their successes and challenges with Kashkari, who observed that many of the hurdles they highlighted—access to credit, navigating regulations, finding good employees—are the same challenges any entrepreneur would face, immigrant or not.
But the entrepreneurs also pointed to cultural and linguistic barriers in trying to convince lenders that their businesses had a viable market. Greg Raymo, a banker in Worthington, said these challenges have gotten easier with the second generation children of immigrants able to serve as ambassadors. “It’s not uncommon for a 12-year-old to come to the bank with her parents to help them apply for a loan.” (Note: Raymo’s bank is a Federal Reserve member bank, supervised by regulators in Minneapolis.)
Rivas and others also pointed to the growing diversity in Worthington as a challenge in itself. “It’s good, but it’s hard too,” he said. His employees speak Spanish and/or English, but dozens of languages are now spoken in the city.
Beyond economic opportunity, others described the benefits of small-town life as an attraction, particularly safety. Abebe Abetew, a native of Ethiopia who lived in Washington, D.C., before moving to Worthington to work at JBS, pointed to the low crime rate and low cost of living as amenities, as well as a short commute time. “When I lived in D.C., I spent three hours a day getting to and from work. Now my commute is five minutes,” he said.
Conversations in Worthington covered more than just the positive aspects of the community for immigrants, however. Some community members criticized a lack of immigrants in city government and particularly on the police force.
Still, most immigrants with whom Kashkari met generally described Worthington as welcoming and said they considered themselves a part of the community. Kuhle attributed this to decades of experience developing a model of inclusiveness, including active faith communities taking the lead resettling refugees and other immigrants. “You just don’t turn the light bulb on and you’ve got people here. There’s a lot of hard work.”
When Natalie Nkashama, a Congolese social worker and market owner who previously lived in Minneapolis, told her friends about her plans to relocate to Worthington, they warned her about moving to a small town where the residents would be overwhelmingly racist. But that hasn’t been her experience, she said. “I’m glad I didn’t listen to them.”
Rivas also said he was glad he made the decision to move to a small town in southwestern Minnesota. “I feel like Worthington is home,” he said.