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Commentary: Examining Attitudes And Policy Toward Immigrants In Rural Ohio

Nicholas A. Tonelli
Flickr Creative Commons

Today, as part of our series called County Lines, we have an opinion piece. It comes from Steven Conn, the W.E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Conn is a regular contributor to the Dayton Daily News and the Huffington Post and a frequent lecturer in the US and around the world on a variety of topics.  He’s also the editor of Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.

He has these thoughts about attitudes and public policy toward immigrants in southwest Ohio:

I’m a city kid born and bred and so it probably isn’t a coincidence that I became a specialist in urban history.

These days I find myself living in Yellow Springs and teaching in Oxford at Miami University. My drive to campus is a remarkable cross-section through the Miami Valley – from one small town to another, with the city of Dayton and acres and acres of farm fields in between.

My commute through the region has convinced me that American cities may have something to teach us about the fate of rural America.

When I grew up in the 1970s Philadelphia was a pretty tough town. I didn’t understand that what I saw as a kid was a city on the ropes, pummeled by big forces: factory closings, systematic disinvestment, and population loss.

But by the time I started to teach twenty years ago a funny thing happened. Many cities began to turn around. Neighborhoods that had seemed to be in irreversible decline stabilized. People started moving back. Investment returned too. Even in Dayton, the population loss seems to have stopped, according to the Census Department. In Philadelphia I can’t afford to live now in some of the neighborhoods my parents told me to avoid when I was a boy.

Large swaths of our region today feel a lot like the urban America I grew up in. We all know about the epidemic of drug addiction and the rise in crime that has come with it. But underneath that crisis has been a slower erosion of economic and social health. People are leaving. The poorest counties in Ohio are all rural.

There are lessons here I think for the rural parts of our region. One of them is the importance of immigration. Before millennials and empty nesters showed up in American cities, immigrants – from the Caribbean and Central America, from West Africa and East Asia –moved into urban neighborhoods and laid some of the foundations upon which the urban renaissance has been built.

Here’s where politics and policy matter. Dayton has energetically made itself an immigrant-friendly city and Dayton’s immigrant population has doubled in the last ten years helping to stem decades of population loss.

Rural Ohio, however, isn’t so hospitable. Immigration and Customs  Enforcement data shows that immigrant deportations across the state actually rose 36% in 2017 even while they declined nationally. And Ohio’s rural voters have supported politicians aggressively hostile to immigrants.

Representative Warren Davidson from Ohio’s 8th district, wants to end birthright citizenship, for example. And Butler County sheriff Richard Jones has become nationally famous for his anti-immigrant histrionics. Both won re-election easily. Meanwhile, a farmer I talked to late in the summer told me he had closed up his vegetable operation because his Mexican crew wasn’t coming back.

Last year I taught a class on the history of small towns in America. My students were struck by how painful it is for many in rural America to acknowledge the challenges these areas face.

One of my students, after interviewing many long-time residents of a small Preble County town, remarked: “Nostalgia is a powerful drug.” He’s right. It lulls people into thinking that our best days are inevitably behind us and makes them feel threatened by change. At its worst, nostalgia turns quickly into destructive anger. That narcotic plays a significant role in our politics today.

Immigrants will change our rural communities and that change clearly frightens some of us. But as the experience of American cities shows, that change might well be the key to reviving our country-side.

Steve Conn is the W.E. Smith professor of history at Miami University in Oxford Ohio.  His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.

County Lines is made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities.