by Alfredo Corchado
Amid all the anti-immigrant fervor, nativists have overlooked a fundamental fact: In recent years, Mexican immigrants and their Mexican-American offspring have been rescuing the most iconic places in America — its small towns.
In the past 10 years, the number of Mexican immigrants living in the United States has declined by more than one million; some left by choice but tens of thousands more left through deportation. Americans who dream of an America without Mexicans should consider Kennett Square.
A town of more than 6,000 people, about an hour outside Philadelphia, Kennett Square proudly calls itself the mushroom capital of the world. The $2.7 billion mushroom industry in southeastern Pennsylvania employs 10,000 people. On New Year’s Eve, Kennett Square drops a bright mushroom cap. These days the festivities are overshadowed by fear.
“Mexicans are leaving, and that’s bad news for everyone,” Chris Alonzo, president of Pietro Industries, one of the biggest mushroom companies, and a third-generation mushroom farmer, told me. “All the negativity, the fearmongering, the anti-immigrant feeling is hurting our small town. We’re seeing labor shortages, and that threatens the vibrancy of our community.”
Kennett Square isn’t an anomaly. Across the country, cities of all sizes are coping with the loss of immigrant labor, but the impact is felt strongest in small-town America. From the meatpacking plants of Lincoln, Neb., to the service industry in Lake Geneva, Wis., immigrants and their employers are increasingly nervous. It may get worse if the trend continues. The birthrate in the United States has dropped to a 30-year low. Rumors of the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents force immigrants to plan for the worst.
In Lake Geneva, I heard a longtime gardener talking to his family of four, half of them living without proper work documents. Should he and his wife be deported, he told their children, they must continue the family landscaping business. If not, their livelihood was at stake.
Overall, immigrants have helped both wealthy and poorer rural towns cope with an aging, declining population. They’ve rescued abandoned communities, some that had been losing population since the 1920s. Immigrants make up 13 percent of the national population and 16 percent of the labor force, but they constitute 18 percent of small-business owners, according to one of the most comprehensive reports on the subject, which was done by the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative. Nationally, immigrant-owned small businesses employ 4.7 million people and, according to the report, generate $776 billion in receipts.
In the Midwest, immigrant renewal includes neighborhoods overrun by heroin and meth addiction. These same illegal drugs fuel violence in the hometowns of these immigrants back in Mexico.
Trouble back home resonates here in Kennett Square. When I discovered the quaint town by chance on an early wintry evening in the 1980s, the men were just lonely workers, coming mostly from the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. I was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal looking for a story.
The men talked about leaving. They didn’t integrate, much less assimilate. Most were desperate to reunite with their families back home. Thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act, though, an estimated 2.7 million people were legalized beginning in 1986, enabling Mexicans and other immigrants to roam freely in greater numbers in search of opportunities.
In Kennett Square, instead of leaving as they had originally hoped, the men saw the value in an industry that provided year-round work. In rural America they saw the ideal place to raise a family. Today, about half of Kennett Square’s residents are Hispanic, of whom an estimated 80 percent are Mexican, according to La Comunidad Hispana, which provides medical, educational and legal services for immigrants.
For more than three generations, the newcomers have contributed to the renewal of Kennett Square. Some Mexican immigrants have started their own mushroom farms. Some own hair salons. Others own Mexican grocery stores. There’s even a taco war, as locals debate who makes the best tacos: Are they downtown or in nearby Avondale? Hundreds of children are now high school graduates, and many went on to earn college degrees.
“The Mexicans changed the community for the better,” Loretta Perna, program coordinator of the Walk in Knowledge Program at Kennett High School, told me. “They became part of not just the mushroom community but part of the overall community, bringing color, richness to an otherwise bland life.”
One of Ms. Perna’s students is Sofia Soto, 18, daughter of Jaime Aguilera, a veteran mushroom worker who built his own landscaping business. Mr. Aguilera now sits in a detention center, waiting for an immigration judge to decide his fate, that of his family and in a more general sense, the future of his adopted hometown. Ms. Soto, like her two siblings and her mother, is an American. She’s determined to attend West Chester University this fall, a promise she made to her father. But she said: “If he’s deported, it won’t be easy. He’s my inspiration.”
Such stories worry Mr. Alonzo, the mushroom grower. Workers aren’t applying for jobs. In fact, many of them avoid walking or driving in town, afraid of giving authorities any reason to check their documents.
Surprisingly, on my most recent visit, some of the newcomers were Central American. At first glance, the immigrant story seemed to be repeating itself. But with the climate of fear, Mr. Alonzo isn’t so sure. “If this continues,” he told me, “the vibrancy of this small, rural community will be gone.”