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South Dakota native: Even rural, primarily white areas will see changes

MITCHELL, S.D. -- While America is diversifying at an increasing rate, South Dakota remains one of the least diverse places in the country and is only beginning to be touched by immigration, according to a Mitchell native who studies demographics and their sociological implications.

Three of the least diverse micropolitan (an area of 10,000 to 49,000 people) areas in the United States are Mitchell, Watertown and Aberdeen, S.D., according to a 2012 Brown University study on the changing face of America. It ranked Watertown as the third least diverse, Mitchell the 13th least, and Aberdeen as the 23rd least diverse.

But that is slowly changing, said Daniel Lichter, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and the director of the Cornell Population Center. He is also the author of the book "Race and the New Racial Diversity in Rural America."

Lichter touched on diversity during a Theodore Schultz lecture at South Dakota State University in Brookings last year. The series is named for the Nobel Prize winner in economics.

Lichter is studying the residential destinations of new immigrants to the United States and has paid close attention to the movement of Hispanics into rural areas.

There are a number of small towns in the Midwest that have growing Hispanic segments of their population. These new arrivals are working at meat processing plants in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and, in a small way, South Dakota, Lichter said.

"Only now are they starting to move into some parts of South Dakota," he said during an interview with The Daily Republic.

"These communities are changing quite rapidly. They haven't changed racially as much as Worthington, Minnesota."

In his 2012 paper on diversity, he points out that Worthington's Hispanic population increased from 392 in 1990 to 4,521 in 2010, based on the 2010 census. Hispanics now make up 35 percent of Worthington's population. In 1990, Hispanics accounted for only about 4 percent of the population.

Worthington is home to JBS USA, formerly Swift & Company, one of the world's largest beef and pork processors.

Some of communities now contain more minorities than non-Hispanic whites, Lichter said. However, they're starting out from a very low base, he said.

"The question is, will it increase in the next decade?" Lichter said. "My guess is it will. It's unlikely that whites will come back to these small towns. People follow sort of pioneer immigrant groups to find jobs and employment. I think some of these rural areas are quite attractive."

Those communities will become "Hispanic enclaves," he said, much like areas known as "Chinatown" or "Little Italy" in larger cities in the past. In South Dakota, it will happen in small towns.

The Hispanic population in South Dakota doubled from 1990 to 2000, and doubled again from 2000 to 2010, according to census figures.

There are an estimated 22,119 people of Hispanic origin in the state, according to the 2010 census. That's 2.7 percent of the population of 814,180 people who were counted as living in South Dakota during the year.

Most live in the two counties in the state with the largest populations: Minnehaha and Pennington. There were 6,982 Hispanics in Minnehaha County, making up 4.1 percent of that county's population, and 4,044 in Pennington County, or 4 percent.

The highest percentage of Hispanics in a county was Beadle County, where 1,337 people of Hispanic heritage made up 7.7 percent of the population, according to the census. Locally, there were 194 Hispanics in Davison County, or 1.5 percent of the county's population.

Lichter wrote that most rural Hispanics are not U.S. citizens, based on a 2008 study.

"They cannot vote or actively participate in civic life; they are part of a new underworld of rural community life that is invisible to longtime community residents. Immigrants do their shopping in Walmart late at night or in the early morning hours so as not to draw the attention of other shoppers."

They also often have few ties to an area, and are willing to relocate quickly.

Still, Lichter said many of the Hispanics coming to the state are "productive young people" who should be valued and brought into the community.

"It behooves us as a country to invest in young people," Lichter said. "A disproportionate share of children is Hispanic. There's a lot of concern that the generation divide, which we've always had, will be exacerbated by a new racial divide of older whites and younger minorities."

Among those concerns are that older, white voters won't support bond issues for schools and other improvements.

"This is something that's being played out across the country. We need to forge a new social contract between older white people and younger minority people," he said. "I think it's important for older people to think about mutual benefits."

Mitchell High graduate

Lichter, a 1971 Mitchell High School graduate, was born in California, but his parents, who have roots in the Parkston-Dimock area, returned home to South Dakota.

Thomas P. and Alice Lichter still reside in Mitchell, and during his speech at SDSU Lichter said he looked for Hispanic faces when he attended church with his parents in Mitchell last year.

"I didn't see any, but some may not be easy to identify," he said.

Lichter earned his bachelor's degree from SDSU in 1975 and then obtained his master's at Iowa State and a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.

He worked at Penn State for 18 years and Ohio State for six years before coming to Cornell, where he is in his seventh year as the Ferris Family professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management. He is also a professor of sociology and the director of the Cornell Population Center.

Lichter, 59, lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife Sharon Sassler, who is also a professor at Cornell. He has three children.

Lichter and Sassler are on sabbatical in The Hague, Netherlands, at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, a research unit of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

At Cornell, he teaches courses on population and public policy, poverty and inequality, and demographic techniques. In addition, he is the president of the Population Association of America, and past-president of the Rural Sociological Society, among other honors and duties.

He has written extensively on demographics, families, evolving lifestyle choices, and welfare policies, among other topics.

Political impact

The impact of a larger Hispanic population on American politics is still being studied, he said. In addition to demographic changes, there are other factors to consider.

Some Hispanics are not citizens and can't vote, while those who are eligible have "notorious low-voting rates," he said. That is changing, he said, as politicians and parties seek to lure Hispanics into their fold.

"For sure they're going to play a larger role in electoral politics," he said.

They especially may take a bigger role in local and state issues and races, Lichter said.

Several states are now "majority-minority states," with more non-white people than white people residing in them. In addition, 57 of the 58 biggest cities in the nation are majority-minority.

Hispanics supported President Obama by overwhelming numbers in 2008 and 2012. But 30 years ago, then-President Reagan said Hispanics, many of whom hold conservative social views, were really Republicans who just didn't realize it yet.

"I think Reagan was probably right up until the last election," Lichter said. "Republicans went so extreme on the anti-immigration policies."

Hispanic voters became disaffected by this policy, as did Asians and blacks, he said. People need to accept the fact that simple math is pointing to a significant change, he said, because more older white people are going to die in the next 20 years.

"They're going to be replaced by a much younger population, more diverse-friendly," Lichter said. "It's just going to be a different kind of place. I think we have to invest in today's children, and we seem reluctant to do that."

If people choose to attack and reject Hispanics, they turn inward and develop their own cultural communities, he said.

"The very thing we worry about, we reinforce by excluding them or discriminating against them," he said. "We have to deal with the immigration question. There's no question about that."

Instead of "militarizing the border," Lichter said, there is a need to systemize the immigration process and allow guest workers in the nation.

"They're contributing members of society," he said.

Lichter said he also favors a pathway to citizenship to allow the children of illegal aliens to forge a path to becoming American citizens.

"Those kids are in never-never land," he said. "They can't become productive members of society in their current status. This is the only country they've ever known, the only culture they've ever known. That just seems like one place to start."

Lichter said 10 to 20 years ago, 80 percent of Mexicans who came to the United States to work returned to their homeland at some point. But now, with the border more tightly guarded, it's tougher to get in, and also difficult to get out.

"We've essentially trapped people here," he said.

Lichter said he feels Hispanics will, like other immigrants, blend into the American quilt.

"Some people think that's going to happen with lighter-skin Hispanics," he said. "They're going to become 'white' in the same way Italians did and Eastern Europeans did."

He said the people who now hold political and social power in the country must be willing to share it. There is some reason for optimism, based on what happened more than a century ago as new immigrants gradually became part of the American family.

There is also cause for concern, with prejudice, political opportunism for those willing to demonize immigrants, and a clash of cultures and differing languages raising potential problems. It's unclear what will happen, he said.

"That's what I worry about," Lichter said. "I think the time to invest is right now. Whether we embrace diversity or not, we're going to be much more diverse in 20 years."