Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James and Deborah Fallows identifies the presence of refugees and immigrants as a sign of an American town’s success. What’s the price of success?
When the Sioux Falls public schools opened their doors in 2013, the biggest single group of these students, about one-third of the total (according to school district figures), were the 700 Spanish speakers, many of whom arrived in migrant worker families. As for the other two-thirds, when we visited, there were 259 Nepali speakers, 135 who spoke Arabic, 129 Swahili, 101 Somali, 93 Amharic, 84 Tigrinya (a Semitic language from the Horn of Africa), and 77 French. A very long tail of other languages included many I’ve never heard of, and I have been studying languages and linguistics all my life. Mai Mai had 27 speakers in the city, Nuer had 7, and then there were Grebo, Lingala—the list goes on.
The school programs start in the classroom and extend to tutoring, summer school, free lunches, and bus passes. They also look to whole-family success. Home-to-school liaisons do things like help schedule parent-teacher conferences and round up translators. Sometimes, translation involves the children’s game of telephone, where speakers pass on a message from one language to the next and the next, and then back again. Such details are fundamental to keeping the entire system working.
Where do you start acculturation with the ocean-deep discrepancies among the children? In refugee-rich Burlington, Vermont, one school’s population includes the daughter of the principal and a little boy whose life experience is so raw that he pees in the corner of the classroom because he can’t imagine a toilet in a restroom.
Although the authors are unreservedly positive about the benefits that low-skill immigration bring to Americans, the facts that they relate do not seem to support this perspective. Many of the “immigrant-rich” or “children-of-immigrant-rich” cities that they write about are remarkable for their poverty and lack of economic growth. For example:
The city’s population had long been more “majority minority” than the entire state’s—San Bernardino is now about 60 percent Hispanic, versus about 40 percent for California—and significantly poorer. The median household income in the city is under $40,000, versus over $60,000 for the state and over $50,000 for the country. San Bernardino is the poorest city of more than village size in California. When things went wrong for the country as a whole in 2008, they went worse for San Bernardino. Because its population was so poor to begin with and had lost so many previous sources of income, the debt levels on its real estate shot up during the subprime bubble of the mid-2000s and then home values fell extra hard, making the city one of the foreclosure centers of the country. Its unemployment rate neared 20 percent at the worst, and even as it improved it remained nearly twice the national level. In 2014, a WalletHub ranking put it dead last on a ranking of job prospects in 150 metro areas.
“We have one of the poorest communities in the nation, fifty-four percent of the population on some kind of public assistance. And our public school system is requiring that our taxpayers further invest dollars that they don’t have, for students just to barely get an entrance requirement for community college. That’s tragic. I couldn’t take that anymore. You’ve got to fix it.”
(The chapter on San Bernardino does not mention its most famous immigrant, Tashfeen Malik, or child of immigrant, Rizwan Farook, or the most famous recent event in San Bernardino, i.e., the 2015 shooting.)
Don’t feel bad for everyone in San Bernardino, though: “This city with a per capita income of $35,000 ended up paying its public safety workers total compensation of about $160,000 apiece, or about $40,000 more than the statewide average.”
Allentown, Pennsylvania is described as having gone from mostly white to “more than 40 percent Latino” and simultaneously to “a bombed-out-looking, high-crime shell of what had been until the 1980s an architecturally attractive and commercially successful downtown area.” Ultimately the city is restored to some extent with huge tax breaks that have drawn in development dollars and projects from other cities and towns in Pennsylvania. The FBI got interested in why certain developers happened to be favored in this public-private partnership and six local officials pled guilty to corruption. In October 2018, the mayor was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
How dramatic has the change in American demography been?
The history of the student population is very different from that of the staff. Since the late 1980s, the demographic composition of Dodge City’s [Kansas] students has dramatically changed. According to one estimate we heard from city officials, the Hispanic population in grades K–12 would have been about 20 percent in the 1980s, and is nearly 80 percent today. First Mexicans, then waves of others from Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Dodge City is, in effect, a “port of entry,” says Robert Vinton, the director of the Dodge City Migrant Education program, even though it is nearly seven hundred miles north of the border. The high school is about 70 percent Hispanic, with another 7 percent designated as “other,” which includes African and Asian immigrant populations; the rest are Anglo. In the high school, 36 percent of students are English-language learners.
Each August, some twenty or thirty new immigrant students are likely to show up. They continue to dribble in through May. The latest wave came from Guatemala, many of whom—even at the high school level—were entering a classroom for the first time and were illiterate. At home, conditions are often poor, and many families arrive with a rough history.
Among the social services I saw: counseling for students who are pregnant, who are already moms, who have incarcerated parents;
More than 50 percent of the students (not all of them migrants) in the DCPS are enrolled in well-established English-Language Learner (ELL) programs. The recently arrived Guatemalans have brought a new linguistic twist. While Guatemala is officially a Spanish-speaking country, roughly twenty-four indigenous languages are spoken there as well. For some who arrive in Dodge City, an indigenous language is their sole language. This forces the same kind of telephone-game translation system I saw applied in Sioux Falls, where a series of interpreters hot-potato a conversation from English to two or three other languages and back again.
In Dodge City, there are some illiterate teenage children arriving who “don’t know how to hold a pencil,” Vinton told me.
Deborah Fallows rides with “Sister Roserita Weber and Sister Janice Thome, nuns of the Dominican Order of Peace” as they serve the immigrants and children of immigrants in Dodge City, Kansas. There are “single moms” with up to six children. There are women trying to get Green Cards based on having been domestic violence victims (see “Au pair to green card” for how this works when done right). There is a family that needs a free ride from “a school’s summer free-lunch program to their trailer.”
Sometimes it seems that immigrants themselves are a resource to be mined by an otherwise failing town. The Rust Belt’s Rust Belt town of Erie, Pennsylvania, for example, is now 10 percent refugee:
I went to visit the starting point for Erie’s continuing flow of new arrivals: the field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). It was already beginning to bustle before 9:00 a.m. on a hot August morning. A woman wearing a bright African cloth wrapped at the waist, with two little children beside her, was sitting on the concrete step in front of the building, waiting for something or someone. Clusters of others, mostly talking quietly in Arabic, were waiting inside in the stuffy reception area. A few of the staffers behind the reception windows were greeting everyone who came in. Along the narrow halls, there were day-care rooms, and there was a play area outside. Beyond some parked strollers and water dispensers, a language lesson was in progress; the instructor was juggling a meld of English grammar and culture for a dozen or more men and women seated at long tables.
Part of that summer bulge was the Zkrit family, who arrived in Erie early in June. In 2012, Mohammad Zkrit was living in Aleppo, Syria, with his young wife, Yasmine, and their two small daughters, and was working in a fabric factory. Then one day, his neighborhood was bombed by the forces of Bashar al-Assad. His house was destroyed, and he was injured.
After three years in Jordan, they were offered the chance to resettle in the United States. Zkrit, thirty-six, and his wife, twenty-six, and their growing family of four young children boarded a plane in Amman bound for Chicago and, ultimately, Erie.
The Fallowses visited in 2016, which means that Mr. Zkrit had been in the U.S. for about one year. How was a guy with experience in “a fabric factory” going to fare in the labor market of a state with no fabric factories? It turned out that he was unemployed, unable to command even the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Also, he did not speak English. Through an interpreter, however, he told the authors how happy he was in Erie and the U.S.: “America is my dream country.”
[Mr. Zkrit, with his lack of English, is not the most challenging refugee in Erie from a job placement perspective. The authors also write about “at least twenty-four deaf refugees from Nepal who live in Erie now.”]
How can a town survive with 10 percent of its population being unskilled unemployed refugees with four kids each? I wonder if the answer is harvesting federal subsidies. Our poorest cities often have sparkling new hospitals, built by mining elderly citizens for Medicare dollars. Could it be that Erie is mining refugees for the Federal Welfare that attaches to them? Each refugee is entitled to housing, health care, and food, all of which will be funded nationally, but purchased in the local economy.
The authors are negative on Donald Trump and imply that anyone who votes for him would be doing so out of “resentment,” “fear,” or “grievance.” They’re especially dismayed by Trump’s opposition to low-skill immigration. Yet their book shows that only a crazy rich country could possibly afford to run both low-skill immigration and a comprehensive welfare state.