Immigration shifts Todd County's economic equationby Jennifer Vogel, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Sandra Lopez stands behind the counter at Abarrotes Lopez on Highway 287 in Long Prairie, near a rack of Bimbo bread and a flyer advertising a bus to Mexico.
The radio plays an English-language country station, though the customers, who buy tortillas and neatly-labeled bags of dried beans, are uniformly Latino.
After a year in business, Lopez -- whose family owns a similar store in the Mexican state of Zacatecas -- says sales are "good, not great." She eyes the back of the store, stocked with children's games and aftershave. "The economy is bad, so people buy food but not a lot else."
Lopez recalls the first time she visited Minnesota, in 2001. "I didn't like it," she says. "It was winter." But she returned a few more times and grew to appreciate her adopted hometown. In December, she married a Long Prairie native. "I'm going to stay," Lopez says. "My husband doesn't want to go to Mexico."
Latinos began arriving in Todd County over a decade ago, mainly to fill difficult and relatively low-paying meat processing jobs, and now number more than 1,000.
The new arrivals brought bits of Latino culture with them, changing the landscape, especially in Long Prairie. The city has two Mexican groceries, a tortilla maker, a bakery and a clothing store. The youngest grades in school are half Latino.
"Most of the new businesses on Main Street are Hispanic," says Long Prairie mayor Don Rasmussen. "Without them, there would be at least four buildings that probably would be empty. I think it's one of the best things that's happened to the city."
Not everyone agrees. "It isn't pretty," says Steve Beck, a former banker and a vocal critic of illegal immigration. While calling new residents "good, hardworking people," he argues that they strain social services and push down wages. "If we could get rid of them, the town would grow," he says.
Rasmussen and Beck represent two sides of the national debate over the effects of immigration on a community.
According to county estimates, Latinos are not overrepresented on local social services rolls. Beyond that, many studies show that when all economic factors are considered, immigration is economically advantageous.
Newcomers start businesses. They pay taxes. Even undocumented workers often pay into systems like Social Security and Medicare, the benefits from which they may never collect.
"Over the course of their lifetimes, immigrants provide a net benefit to state and national economies," according to a 2009 report from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. "Unlike native-born Americans, who are aging rapidly...immigrants are generally in their prime working years when they come to the United States, thus providing a crucial infusion to the work force."
Some hope these new residents will help solve one of Todd County's most pressing problems: It has a higher percentage of elderly people than the state as a whole, a proportion expected to grow.
While the median age in Todd County is nearly 39, the median age among Latinos in Minnesota is 24.
Nowhere is the relative youth of the Latino community more evident than in the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle school system. Latinos comprise a quarter of the overall student body and around half of kindergarteners and 1st and 2nd graders.
"If those students weren't here, our school would be significantly smaller," says Superintendent Jon Kringen. "School funding is driven by enrollment. We have 70 kindergarten students. If there were no Hispanics, we would have 35. We'd have fewer teachers. We'd have fewer expenses, too. It's a tradeoff. But on the whole it's a positive thing."
Tim King, who publishes the bilingual newspaper, La Voz Libre, acknowledges that a significant portion of local Latinos may be in the country illegally.
If that's the case, their status could make them susceptible to immigration raids. But overall, King says, "This is a stable population" that expresses an abundance of civic pride. "A lot of [Latino] people debate. They say, 'We were the first people here. We came 12 years ago.' And they don't budge."
One of the early arrivals was Pastor Rene Morazan of the Spanish-language Apostolic Church of the Faith in Christ Jesus, in Long Prairie. He came to Minnesota in 1998 from California with his wife. "I really like Minnesota," he says. "I like the people. I think I'm going to be here for a long time."
Part of his mission is helping Latinos adjust to life in the Midwest. "We connect people with jobs," says Morazan.
Home ownership tends to be a sign of stability. And David Leagjeld, who owns Ace Realty in Long Prairie, has witnessed quite a few Latino buyers. "In the last couple of years, it's grown to 40 or 50 percent" of his business, he says. The question remains: Are the cultures mixing?
"You won't see segregation among the students," says Kringen. "Hispanic kids are friends with white kids." But that's less the case with adults. "I don't think there has been integration in the community as there is in the school. It's a comfort zone thing, not a racist thing."
The language barrier remains an obstacle. Lopez, who speaks English well, remembers coming to Minnesota as a teen. "I didn't know English and it wasn't easy. I remember looking at the people walking by on the sidewalk and thinking, 'I'm never going to be able to understand.' But gradually I did."
King puts it this way: "White people don't know how to reach out to Hispanic people and Hispanic people don't know how to reach out to white people."
Yet he sees reason for optimism. "At the Cinco de Mayo celebration last year, we had 900 people, a nice mix of Latino and white. Nine hundred people never came to a single event in Long Prairie before. It suggests to me that there is a desire in the community to come together. They are just not sure how to do it."
Third of four parts: This series has been prepared by Minnesota Public Radio News as part of a project called Ground Level, which explores Minnesota communities facing their futures.