In the 1970s, around 15,000 people lived in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The city experienced the same setbacks of many cities its size, including a downtown that had faded so drastically that the community’s own economic development authority called it “a place to avoid … filled with crumbling sidewalks, worn buildings, vacant storefronts, and faded pride.”

Harrisonburg was in the same straits as many communities, in other words. 

But by the late 2010s, Harrisonburg’s population had grown to 55,000. Its James Madison University had grown to 22,000 students. The city’s downtown featured 40 restaurants and $35 million had been invested in downtown buildings in a little more than a decade.

Many factors contributed to Harrisonburg’s growth, and they’re recounted in a new book, Vulnerable Communities: Research, Policy and Practice in Small Cities (Cornell University Press). In the book’s opening chapter, Henry Way, a geography professor at James Madison University, also notes what could be interpreted as a key factor in the changes in Harrisonburg over recent decades: 

Harrisonburg’s population has become more diverse. The city is now about 20% made up of people with Latino origins. The small city has benefited, Wray wrote, from three key elements of growth: education, downtown revitalization, and immigration. 

As population increases in communities large and small seem to be based in large part on an influx in people who are immigrants and refugees, cities and counties are finding strength in diversity.

Immigration is the future of smaller cities and rural communities. Emily Wornell, a research assistant professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, notes that when she speaks to groups of officials and citizens from towns and small communities, she tells them, “Immigration is the best, if not only, hope for (towns’) population gain for the foreseeable future.”

In a 2019 study, “Fiscal, Economic and Social Effects of Immigration in the Hoosier State,” Wornell and economist and professor Michael Hicks found that 25% of population growth in Indiana from 2000 to 2015 was due to immigration. 

Wornell, along with James J. Connolly and Dagney G. Faulk, edited “Vulnerable Communities.”

“We are all global citizens, whether we want to be or not,” Jennifer Erickson, a feminist anthropologist at Ball State University, told me in an interview. Her chapter “Diversity in the Dakotas” is also included in “Vulnerable Communities.”

“I love seeing the world from a different perspective,” added Erickson, who lived in Bosnia for two years. “Hearing about kinship and family structures (from people from other cultures) helps us learn about ourselves. What happens in another time and place happens to us now.”

In its paper “The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways,” the Brookings Institution noted that many of the traditional gateways for immigrants have changed and now include areas outside large metropolitan centers. 

“By 2000, more immigrants in metropolitan areas lived in suburbs than in cities, and their growth rates there exceeded those in the cities. Most notably, immigrants in emerging gateways are far more likely to live in the suburbs than in central cities,” according to the paper.

Large communities have always seen a high level of immigration. The New American Economy Foundation reported in 2019 that three cities – Cincinnati, Miami, and Birmingham – grew mostly for several years because of an influx of immigrants. In those three cities, 87% of the population increase from 2014 to 2017 was made up of immigrants.

Smaller cities and rural areas have also seen a steady settlement of people from outside the United States, although the growth has been much slower in some cases. 

The town of Worthing, South Dakota, with a population of about 1,000, was the chosen place to settle for a refugee family Erickson knew. “They work in Sioux Falls and live in Worthing. They have four kids, and they love this tiny little town.”

Erickson said that in years of contact with refugees and immigrants, “I met families who would like to be in a small town so they can have a huge garden.”

There’s probably no larger immigrant and refugee group entering the United States right now than Afghan refugees, Erickson said. The Taliban takeover of key cities in Afghanistan in 2021 meant the quick approval of immigrant status for 76,000 Afghan people to the United States. Anywhere from 50 to 100 Afghan refugees arrive each week, PBS reported in early February 2022.

Some communities, including my own city of Muncie, Indiana, had previously lagged the rest of the nation in attracting foreign-born citizens. Census data indicates that in 2019, only 2.3% of Muncie’s population of about 69,000 had been born outside the United States, compared to a 13.7% national average. That 2.3% number was actually down from the year before. (Indiana’s immigrant share of the population itself was 5.3%, far below the 13.9% immigrant share of the population of neighboring Illinois.)

Muncie, like a number of American communities in late 2020 and early 2021, began participating in a government program hoping to provide home communities for Afghans who left their home country after the Taliban took control. Through the program overseen by the newly created Muncie Afghan Refugee Resettlement Committee (MARRC), about 60 refugees had settled in Muncie by the end of January 2020. The refugees worked in local jobs, attended local schools, and played soccer with a local soccer club.

“Muncie has struggled with both population loss and brain drain,” economist Hicks told me. “The Afghan refugees address both concerns, bringing to the region a group with better-than-average human capital who can make a home here.”

Hicks pointed out that Muncie “had always been a city of immigrants,” including the 20th century influx of immigrants from Tennessee who came to the city to work in the then-plentiful industrial plants. 

A mid-2010s study by the Daily Yonder showed that immigration was linked to boosts to the rural economy. Smaller counties showed income increased as immigration increased.

“Vulnerable Communities” recounts what happened to some communities over the decades, in many cases a decline and in some cases a comeback.

In not every instance is an influx of refugees or immigrants a factor, but it’s a common thread in the book.

Immigration “has the potential to change the cultural and social dynamics of the community,” Wornell said in an interview. “This is a true, great demographic shift for rural America.”

Communities like Utica, New York, and Dayton, Ohio have done well by welcoming immigrants and resettled refugees, writes Alan Mallach in his chapter in “Vulnerable Communities,” “The Economic Fortunes of Small Industrial Cities and Towns.” 

“There is little to be lost and much potentially to be gained through efforts to attract Immigrants and refugees,” Mallach writes.

Small cities and even small towns can be welcoming places to immigrants and refugees, Erickson told me. 

If a small community wants to be welcoming to refugees and immigrants, she said, the community needs to overcome the idea that it wants New Americans to work in its meat-packing plant but won’t address language needs or social service needs, or even something as simple and straightforward as transportation. 

“In a city, it can take several years to become economically self-sufficient so that you can have a car and don’t have to ride a bus,” Erickson said. 

Communities that want to be welcoming should help new neighbors understand local laws, including domestic violence laws, help bridge the language gap, learn their rights and responsibilities as a renter, and weather awareness if they’re not accustomed to snow.

New Americans are not monolithic and homogenous, Erickson noted. There are differences among them in regard to race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and more. 

Erickson said immigrants and refugees, who can bring so many things to U.S. communities large and small, bring a much-needed perspective.

“We live in a divided nation right now, and others around the world have too,” she said. “We can learn from them. And on an everyday level, talking to someone from another country is inherently interesting.”

Keith Roysdon is a lifelong writer who retired in 2019 from a 40-year career as an Indiana newspaper reporter and editor. He won dozens of state and national awards for his reporting.

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