Where will food-processing workers come from?

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Trump Can't Make Worthington, Minnesota, White Again

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Guadalupe García de Rayos, a 35-year-old mother of two American children, was arrested in Phoenix last week and deported to Mexico, which she left as a 14-year-old to travel illegally to the U.S. There was no public-safety rationale for her removal. But the president who defrauded students, cheated contractors and shattered democratic norms on his way to the White House is apparently a stickler for following rules.

The deportation, over protests, was another shot in the federal government's new war on immigrant communities. Its reverberations extend far beyond the 20 metro areas, including Phoenix, that are home to the majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Guadalupes can be found in unexpected places.

Worthington, Minnesota, is a prairie town of 13,000 near the southwest corner of the state, just north of the Iowa line. It has a thriving little downtown spotted with restaurants and stores, and, from June to October, an open-air farmer's market in the old Campbell Soup Company parking lot.

Along 10th Street, running through the center of the commercial district, the Top Asian Food and Deli features Asian, Spanish and African groceries, along with money-wiring services. Next door is El Mexicano #3, another grocery. Next to that is the El Mexicano restaurant, which is down the street from El Azteca and El Taco.

City administrator Steve Robinson, a Worthington native, said that his 1978 graduating high school class had about 260 people. "Thinking back," he said in a phone interview, "I believe there were four non-Caucasian classmates."

Immigrants began coming to Worthington from around the globe in the late 1980s, when the local pork-processing plant was expanding. The cultural transition was often excruciating. Natives, Robinson said, "were afraid to go to the grocery store because they were afraid they were going to be attacked."

Crime in Worthington is lower than in most comparable towns within a 150-mile radius, said Robinson, and myths about the dangers of immigrants are "really starting to wane." It helps that immigrant businesses have revitalized a sinking downtown that seemed destined for destruction after a Walmart opened nearby.

Today, the local JBS plant employs more than 2,000 people processing more than 20,000 hogs daily. Other businesses, including local farms, livestock transporters, veterinarians and Worthington's downtown merchants, all benefit from the plant's economic impact.

Not everyone in Worthington is in the U.S. legally. In 2006, federal immigration agents raided the pork plant (then owned by Swift Co.) as part of a nationwide crackdown and arrested more than 200 workers there. The Center for Immigration Studies, which supports greater restrictions on immigration, estimated in 2009 that almost one-quarter of Swift plant workers nationwide were undocumented immigrants. (Some undocumented workers use stolen Social Security numbers to obtain work; many companies pretend not to know.) The pro-immigration Migration Policy Institute, working from U.S. Census data, estimates that, nationally, about 13 percent of the workforce in the meat-processing sector is unauthorized.

Worthington is not a sanctuary city. It lacks the resources of Los Angeles or San Francisco. "We don't care what your immigration status is," Robinson said. "We will, however, cooperate with immigration officials."

If the feds come for local undocumented immigrants, there's little place for them to hide. The city works with community groups to counsel local immigrants on how to deal with law-enforcement authorities. "We have done demonstrations to show people how to behave during a routine traffic stop," Robinson said. "Many come from countries where the police have been the bad guys."

The 2006 raid unleashed a wave of fear through the town. The plant lost workers. The town lost residents. But the trauma didn't stop Worthington's transformation into a cultural polyglot.

President Donald Trump's multi-faceted campaign against immigrants is likewise futile. Deportations and immigration bans can impose misery on families and friends. They can compromise businesses, communities and local economies. But they won't make America white again.

"First, the racial minority population is  growing more from natural increase than immigration," said Brookings Institution demographer William Frey in an e-mail. "Second, the white population will start declining after the year 2025."  

Robinson said more than 50 languages are now spoken in Worthington. Its diversity is a product not of coastal cosmopolitanism but of low wages paid for hard work. The town's political leadership is still all white. But it probably won't be for long.

Asked if there were anything Trump's immigration policies might do to alter Worthington's trajectory, Robinson didn't hesitate to answer: "Not at all."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net