On Sept. 23, the Star Tribune reprinted a Washington Post article online with the headline, “Immigrant kids fill this town’s schools. Their bus driver is leading the backlash.” I’d like to respond.
Worthington’s immigration benefits far, far outweigh any perceived disadvantages. The “bus driver” article, as it has become known, does not fairly represent the effects of immigration on our community.
Since the early 2000s, we have grown from a town of 10,000 mostly Caucasian residents to a population of more than 13,000. While most communities outside of the metropolitan areas have struggled to grow or even maintain populations, Worthington is moving ahead, in a variety of ways:
Worthington has 47 minority-owned small businesses that contribute to our tax base and provide jobs for our community. They pay real estate taxes either directly or through the rent they pay to landlords. The wages these businesses pay reverberate throughout our entire community. Our main street for the most part is filled with tenants and is thriving. I have been through communities that have main streets with a lot of vacant buildings. Not Worthington.
The JBS pork processing plant has grown because of the available workforce in our community. Its economic impact on our community and surrounding area is around $100 million in the form of wages, real estate taxes, sales taxes and hogs purchased from farmers within 100 miles of Worthington. Approximately 24,000 hogs are processed each day, from which the farmers benefit financially. The crops they grow that are turned into feed help to increase the value of their products. The hog facilities needed to grow the animals to meet the demand of JBS are an important source of income as well.
The ag bioscience/animal vaccine sector is thriving in Worthington as well. Merck, Ingelheim Boringer, Cambridge are companies that do business internationally and locally. The need for skilled labor is always a concern. Manufacturing businesses such as Bedford Industries have a workforce in excess of 400 employees, and other businesses have struggled to find employees.
Immigration has helped to provide badly needed employees for these businesses and the surrounding area. The farming community has benefited from the availability of immigrant workers. Without immigrants moving to Worthington, we would likely be a community in decline.
Worthington has about 12 different cultures represented, from Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America. Our dining options are among the best in our region. Diversity is a good thing for our community and surrounding area, much as it was back in the early 1900s. Back then, the influx of immigrants mostly from Europe helped our community and the entire nation grow and prosper. Change and growth are a good thing.
You might think that a community with such a diverse population would have increased crime issues. Not Worthington. We ranked as the third-safest city in the state of Minnesota in 2019 thanks to our police officers and Public Safety Director Troy Appel, who have reached out to the different ethnic groups and gained trust and relationships. They get involved with the community.
As for Worthington’s immigration debate, I respect the right to opinions on both sides of this issue. The ag economy is in very bad shape with multiple years of stagnant or declining crop prices and weather issues. The farmers have a legitimate concern in funding school bond issues, but the Minnesota Legislature has enacted some reforms in the past few years to help them out.
Our industries, businesses and homeowners pay a significant amount of taxes as well in funding new school bond issues. The bond issues presented to the voters were all different and in some cases were just too expensive for our community. We will get this resolved.
I believe that the majority of our residents are not racist, but circumstances beyond our control are causing the problems.
We need sensible solutions to the whole issue of immigration from the federal government, Congress and the president. Immigrants are vital to communities such as Worthington, as they provide employees and benefit us culturally.
I am convinced that neither the Republican nor Democratic parties want to fix the immigration system. Both sides want to use it as a tool for re-election and to raise campaign funds.
We are a divided country; we will need major compromise from both sides to gain major reform. Until we the voters start to hold our representatives and senators accountable, things will not get resolved. The ability to compromise in any negotiation will always give a much better solution.
We do need a secure border, but we really need a better and faster pathway to citizenship. Some immigrants do not have a pathway to citizenship and are then forced into illegal status. An improved immigration system is vital to the future of Worthington and other communities.
Our welfare system is also completely missing the mark, as it seems to be designed to trap people in the system. It should be designed to encourage and help individuals and families become self-sufficient and get off the system. Benefit availability should be on a sliding scale as they start to get on their feet. We should not make the mistake of abruptly stopping benefits — such as help with child care or travel expenses to and from work — before they are financially secure.
Again, this will take major compromise from both parties to accomplish, not use of the issue as a political football.
In the end. immigrants just want a chance for a better life, and the children want to be united with their families. Worthington needs employees to grow and prosper.
Mike Kuhle is mayor of Worthington, Minn.