Morris, Minn. – Juan Cid opened his downtown restaurant, Mi Mexico, five years ago after noticing that many residents of this western Minnesota city were willing to drive 25 miles to eat at another Mexican restaurant he owned.
He imported brightly colored tables and chairs from Guadalajara and took over the ethnic grocery store downstairs, stocking it with piñatas, Mexican breads and sweets, and a medley of beans, chiles and spices. Cid advertised long-distance mailing and packing services for customers who hail from Mexico and Central America. Now he’s looking at expanding his business further.
“I saw the Hispanic community was going to be growing,” said Cid, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2002.
The influx of immigrants has done more than alter the character of a city originally settled by Scandinavian, German and Irish immigrants in the 19th century. It has slowed decades of population decline in Stevens County. The same phenomenon is playing out across vast stretches of rural Minnesota, from Worthington to Austin in the south to the East Grand Forks region in the north. The new arrivals are helping slow, halt or even reverse falling census counts in 15 Minnesota counties.
These shifts come as President Donald Trump pledges to crack down on the number of people who cross the southern border to apply for asylum and those who bypass the system and enter the U.S. illegally. Last month, he threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming there’s no more room. “Our country is full, our area is full, the sector is full. We can’t take any more. … So turn around,” Trump said.
Trump won 52% of the vote in Stevens County in 2016, including the one cast by Morris Mayor Sheldon Giese.
He believes the president’s comments on immigration don’t necessarily apply to Morris. The president, Giese believes, is focusing on undocumented immigrants — not people here. Giese said he thinks the immigrants in the Morris area have been properly vetted by their employers, and their arrival has not caused a drastic change.
“It doesn’t overwhelm the system — as a matter of fact, it helps out the local economy,” said Giese. But he maintains that employers would have found other ways to recruit a workforce if foreign immigration hadn’t been an option. “I think if the business owners would have wanted to succeed, they would have succeeded.”
In the decade before the recent wave of immigration, Stevens County’s population dropped from 10,634 to 10,053 as the number of America-born residents fell. There are even fewer American-born residents today. That loss has been partly offset by a surge in foreign-born residents, from 171 in 2000 to 461 in 2017, who may also have American-born children.
Many immigrants have come to work for Riverview, an agribusiness involved in dairy and beef cattle farming.
“We are always in need of a workforce and they are filling that need,” said Kevin Wulf, who works in human resources for the company.
Immigrants began finding their way here in the early 2000s to work in the dairy, poultry and concrete industries, enrolling their children in schools and in some cases buying homes. To accommodate the changes, Morris Free Church instituted Spanish language services on Sundays.
Cid and his friends started a soccer tournament, with teams of Latino immigrants that now crowd the high school gym on weekends. He has seen the Somali community growing in nearby Willmar, and the Asian population burgeoning in Minneapolis, where he travels routinely to buy supplies.
“If they’re letting other cultures come to the United States, why not open the doors for everyone, not just for select people?” he said. “Central America is our neighbor.”
Windy González Roberts founded a group called Lazos, which means “ties” in Spanish, to connect with new immigrants and help Morris become a model city in welcoming them. Some of her students at University of Minnesota, Morris, where she is a professor, also suggested starting English classes for the newcomers and volunteered to teach in the evenings. The program grew and grew — now it operates twice a week on campus with five levels of proficiency, and Lazos has an annual dinner that raises money for English books and allows longtime members of the community to meet newer arrivals.
Roberts, who immigrated decades ago from Venezuela, generally praised the town’s reception of immigrants but has noticed some change in the atmosphere around town since Trump took office. When she speaks Spanish with her mother at the supermarket, she said, “I do get some dirty looks and I’ve never felt that before, ever.”
Cid, too, has heard from some immigrants that they don’t feel welcome. But for the most part, Latinos here maintain that the town has embraced the changes.
‘I like this area’
Immigration also means that Stevens County is expected to see growth in the working age population by 2050 — one of just 15 such counties in Minnesota, including those spanning the Twin Cities, according to population projections by the Minnesota state demographer.
Anne Barber was born and raised in Morris, moving away as a new college graduate in the mid-1990s. When her family prepared to return in 2013, she was excited to see there was much more racial diversity in town than before.
“When I was a kid going to school here, everybody was white, and it is quite different now,” said Barber, director of the library, which now has library card registration forms and books in Spanish.
On a recent afternoon, Jaime Villalaz of the Latino Economic Development Center was talking at the library with immigrant farmers about making loans to help them start small farming operations. One of the farmers, Javier Ayala, migrated from Mexico a decade ago and married an American here.
“I like this area,” he said. “It has a lot of opportunities.”
Asked about Trump’s rhetoric regarding the crush of migrants at the southern border, Villalaz noted that he knows a lot of undocumented people in Minnesota. Why give opportunities to new immigrants at the border, he questioned, when they could give driver’s licenses and work permits to the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already in America?
Aaron Blyth, an agricultural program manager for the economic development center, pointed to Long Prairie, where the center has done extensive work. That town had historically been losing population and only started to regain with people from Mexico and Somalia working in the meatpacking industry there, he said.
“There actually is more economic vibrancy in that community that was not going to be there otherwise,” Blyth said. “That’s one example but that doesn’t speak of America being too full — it speaks to the exact opposite, that there’s room in rural America.”
Some of the newcomers say that it’s easy to get by only speaking Spanish in Morris.
But Daniel Carlos, a Mexican immigrant who praised the town as tranquilo, had to go to the hospital several times and could barely communicate with the staff. He realized he needed to go to the English night class at University of Minnesota, Morris, which draws 70 students a semester. Karen Guzmán, a hostess at Mi Mexico, and Ecko Ramirez, a worker at Riverview — also from Mexico — were eager to pick up more of the language.
On a recent Thursday evening, the English beginners learned the definitions for grocery store, library, hospital and restaurant. Teachers Elizabeth Abler and Becca Bertalotto, prompted them to practice giving directions. “We’re just going to practice our rights and lefts,” said Abler. She asked them how to say “right” in Spanish.
“Derecha!” the students called out.
They assigned the students to pair up: one student would close her eyes and trace a pencil through the maze on a workbook as her partner gave directions — up, down, right, left — in English. “Inglés, inglés, inglés!” Abler reprimanded several pupils as they lapsed into Spanish.
As the class ended, Guzmán acknowledged that she “really, really liked” learning English. She wants to practice with the customers at Mi Mexico. “I just need to come more often,” she said.
Data Editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.