Immigrants, jobs and Long Prairie

I just listened again to the exchange about immigration at our forum last Thursday in Long Prairie. (Go to our Todd County page, scroll down to “forum” and click on “Listen.” The conversation I’m talking about starts around Minute 44 of the hour-long piece.)

Antonio Meza, who’s been a resident of Todd County for seven years and has been a U.S. citizen since March, mentioned how welcome he’s felt in Todd County (although not necessarily elsewhere in Minnesota) and reported the fear and uncertainty his fellow immigrants are feeling over recent job losses.

On the recording, you hear two people, including Long Prairie Mayor Don Rasmussen, make what seemed to be heartfelt and welcoming remarks in response. I had a suspicion that perhaps others who felt differently were present but chose to remain silent. The letters-to-the-editor space in the Long Prairie Leader supports that notion, and over the weekend, MPR News’ Public Insight Network received a comment from someone who had read our work in one of the Todd County newspapers and who suggested that, in fact, illegal immigrants are taking good jobs away from citizens.

Are they? Two points to consider: Unemployment in Todd County, always higher than in the state as a whole, rose like it did everywhere else in 2008 and 2009 and dropped slightly more recently. And few would argue that all immigrants in Todd County are in the United States legally, although some people think that is more important than others do.

So, have job-seeking citizens been turned away by employers who have ready access to immigrants? Or is it a matter of citizens not seeking what are considered difficult, unpleasant jobs in the meatpacking industry? And either way, is the debate one purely of jobs and legality or are larger issues of economy and opportunity equally significant?

I grew up in a rural Minnesota town similar to Long Prairie and I worked for a time in a meat processing plant that employed a sizable contingent of Mexican immigrants. I’m genuinely curious to hear what evidence people have either way, although I feel the need to say I’m interested in shedding light on evidence, not in hearing personal attacks.