Making Communities Welcoming: New Faces in Rural Places

Grow It Goal 10We want our families and communities to thrive, and, in order for rural places to succeed, rural communities need to be places that families want to live. One good sign that rural communities continue to be attractive places to live is that many new families are settling down in rural counties, according to recently released American Community Survey data. Rural and mixed-rural counties grew by 3.3 million people since the 2009 data set*. But who are these new residents, and how can we help them feel at home?

America’s New Neighbors

Increasingly, rural America’s new neighbors are Hispanic/Latino. While only a small percentage of Americans living in rural and mixed-rural counties are Hispanic–12%–they make up a large number of new families moving and being born in rural places. One-in-two of America’s new rural neighbors are Hispanic. Put differently, that is 1.5 million new Hispanic residents over a two year period.

Hispanics/Latinos Moving to Rural America

According to ACS 5-year-estimate data, 1.5 million Hispanics/Latinos moved or were born in  rural and mixed-rural counties (between the 2009 and 2011 releases of the surveys). Click the image to see how rural Hispanic populations are changing in each state.

The four U.S.-Mexico Border States rank in the top ten states with growing Hispanic rural/mixed-rural population, but this trend is not isolated to the Southwest. According to a 2012 report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), starting in 2000, “half of all nonmetro Hispanics lived outside the Southwest and increasingly in the Midwest and Southeast.”

  • RuFES data indicates that in seven states outside the Southwest, Hispanics accounted for more than 50% of new rural/mixed-rural residents: Michigan, Connecticut, Kansas, Oregon, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Washington.
  • In another fifteen states outside the Southwest, Hispanics accounted for more than one-third of newcomers: Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi, Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Maryland, New York, Illinois, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Idaho.

One challenge, according to the USDA report, is that many new Hispanic residents are undocumented immigrants (often times from rural communities in depressed regions in Mexico) who may have a hard time finding work or accessing social services. The report notes that “residential separation” between non-Hispanic Whites and Hispanics is increasing in rural counties, meaning that new immigrants live in areas disconnected from rest of their community. This disconnection from community and civic life means that new immigrants may have a harder time accessing the jobs, services, and support networks they need to enter the economic mainstream.

Becoming Welcoming Communities

The success of rural communities now depends on the success of this growing number of Hispanic–largely immigrant–families. A growing initiative called Welcoming America has stepped up to address some of these challenges by helping communities develop immigrant integration plans. Their “Receiving Communities Toolkit,” developed with the help of the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, walks communities and organizations through the process of building relationships between long-term residents and their new neighbors. It is through these relationships and trust that immigrant families are able to successfully integrate into their new communities and connect to the broader economy.

The action steps in the toolkit provide detailed examples and resources on how to go about helping integrate new neighbors into the community. The strategies fall into three categories:

  • Efforts that facilitate contact between immigrants and non-immigrants: offering community dialogues, hosting joint projects
  • Communications strategies to reach out to the media: conducting local media campaigns, identifying spokespeople
  • Leadership strategies to gain political support: connecting with faith leaders, convening business leaders

Steps You Can Take Today

  • You can download a copy of the Receiving Communities Toolkit here.
  • You can also read more about the Welcoming America initiative here.
  • Want to learn more about welcoming immigrants to rural places? Watch Welcome to Shelbyville, a 2008 documentary about welcoming Somali immigrants to a town of 4,700 residents in central Illinois.

* Figures calculated by comparing the 2011 and 2009 American Community Survey 5-Year Population Estimates. Margins of error were excluded so figures should be taken as rough approximations.

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RuFES is a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group.
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