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Rural America lost more population in the latest census, highlighting an already severe worker shortage in the nation's farming and ranching regions and drawing calls from those industries for immigration reform to help ease the problem.
The census data released last week showed that population gains in many rural areas were driven by increases in Hispanic and Latino residents, many of whom come as immigrants to work on farms or in meatpacking plants or to start their own businesses.
“We’ve struggled on this issue for a long time to try to come up with a more reasonable, common-sense approach,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which is part of a group lobbying Congress for new immigration laws. Vilifying immigrants "just makes it harder to get there.”
David Drozd, a research coordinator for the University of Nebraska Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research, crunched the census data and found Nebraska counties with the greatest racial diversity are a “who's who of where the meatpacking plants are" — even though many plants are in rural areas that are often perceived as mostly white.
“In the rural areas, if you didn't have the Latino growth, employers would be struggling even more just to fill those positions,” Drozd said.
In New Mexico, populations declined across 20 rural counties that stretch from the Great Plains at Oklahoma to the U.S. border with Mexico. Desperate for laborers for its annual chile harvest, the state this week pledged up to $5 million in federal pandemic relief to subsidize wages for pickers and workers at chile-processing plants — boosting available wages as high as $19.50 an hour.
The New Mexico Chile Association trade group says the industry is short about 1,350 seasonal laborers of the 3,000 workers needed.
The challenge is exacerbated in Midwestern states that already have many of the nation's lowest unemployment rates, said Al Juhnke, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association.
Juhnke said his group would like to see changes that would allow seasonal immigrant workers to stay in the country longer.
“These folks buy houses. They bring their families. They go to our churches. They earn money and spend it locally,” he said. “It's really a win-win-win for these communities.”
In Iowa, Latino leaders eagerly awaited the census numbers in hopes that they would show population growth that would translate into more political clout for their communities and better conditions in the food production and construction industries.
Republican politicians often try to tie reforms at the U.S.-Mexican border to pathways to citizenship for workers already here, said Joe Henry, political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens local council in Des Moines.
But Henry said the two issues need to be separated, and agricultural companies understand that they cannot survive without immigrants.
“They know they need that labor," he said.
Rachel Gantz, a spokeswoman for the National Pork Producers Council, said her group will continue to press Congress on the H-2A visa program so that migrant workers can remain employed longer.
“Simply put, pork producers are drawing from a rapidly diminishing pool of applicants,” she said. “Our producers fear — and the recent census data suggests — that this trend is unlikely to change any time soon.”