At a time when so much public discussion about immigrants and immigration is negative — with overblown, fear-inducing narratives about criminal activity, building walls and keeping people out — a Minnesota town is demonstrating how new Americans can strengthen a community.
A recent in-depth story by Star Tribune reporter Chip Scoggins and photographer Aaron Lavinsky described how Austin has become an accepting, multicultural community by embracing its large and growing immigrant population. Families of all colors and backgrounds are becoming friends and neighbors. Kids and parents alike have gotten to know and support each other. The town’s story is a model for how cities and neighborhoods ought to respond as their demographics shift.
Located about 100 miles south of the Twin Cities, Austin is a city that was nearly 100% white and American-born in 1980. Today, 31% of residents are from immigrant families, and more than 40 different languages are spoken in Austin’s schools. Early waves of newcomers were primarily Spanish-speaking. They were followed by natives of South Sudan and Southeast Asia — all drawn to the area because of job opportunities at Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors Inc.
Yes, there were challenges as the community changed, and some level of resentment and racism no doubt lingers. But with effort and understanding, many residents have carved out a way to celebrate differences and build community on what they have in common. They’ve built an especially strong bond between cultures around high school sports as immigrant children have become key players on basketball and soccer teams.
But cheering on the hometown team is not all they’ve done to build bridges instead of barriers. The city opened a welcome center on its Main Street and hosted Taste of the Nations events where African and Asian dishes were served along with Minnesota hot dish. The Hormel Foundation worked with the YMCA to offer $1-per-year memberships, which allowed more than 700 kids — many of them Sudanese — to join.
In addition, the City Council established a rotating, nonvoting, honorary council seat for leaders from the immigrant community to include their voices in city decisions. Cultural liaisons were hired to be “success coaches” for students from different ethnic communities.
A February Star Tribune/MRP News poll found that 59% of Minnesota voters surveyed say they support the refugee resettlement in their communities, and 62% believe that immigrants mostly help the economy. Austin is helping lead the way.
David McKichan, a 20-year Austin police veteran who became chief last year, told Scoggins that communication builds trust.
Noting that Austin’s low crime rate hasn’t changed at all in the last couple of decades, he added, “Has [immigration] been negative business for us? Absolutely not.”