June 22, 2010

Contesting the Very Meaning of (Small-Town, Agrarian) America(n)

Main Street America scene
Small-town America
Photo by M. Jeremy Goldman

Anyone who is following the debate about immigration and its reform in the United States is familiar with rhetoric disputing what America's core values are as a means of supporting the competing visions for who gets to be an American—or, at least, who gets to be in America legally. Those opposing immigration talk about how the newcomers are changing America too much. Those in favor of more lax immigration laws remind us that the United States has always been a nation of immigrants.

Nowhere is this debate being waged more vigorously than in what might be thought of as America's heartland. I was reminded of that fact this morning when I read that 57% of voters in Fremont, Nebraska, population 25,576, voted in favor of an ordinance that will "banish illegal immigrants from jobs and rental homes." One of the things that makes the Fremont ordinance unusual among anti-immigrant activity by smallish local governments is that residents demanded this referendum—taking the matter all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court—after city officials voted against such an ordinance. Interestingly, the primary reason that the city's political leaders opposed the ordinance appears to be the litigation it is likely to prompt—litigation the municipality can hardly afford. Read more here and here.

The New York Times reporting on these Nebraska events is full of small-town imagery and associations, such as the lack of anonymity that has caused community division over the ordinance to play out in especially personal acts of violence and vandalism. (Don't miss a related multimedia feature here). But what struck me most in reading Monica Davey's story today was the small-town, American values rhetoric being used by both sides. On the one hand, immigration foes in Fremont "complained that illegal immigrants were causing an increase in crime, taking jobs that would once have gone to longtime residents, and changing the character of their quiet city, some 30 miles of farm fields from Omaha." On the other, an opponent of the ordinance said it tells "the Hispanic community that the Anglo community is saying they are not welcome here. They thought they were coming to a small-town community with small-town values."

This talk about "small-town values" and the "character of their quiet city" brought to mind the stasis and homogeneity that has typically marked many rural communities, even those like Fremont that have grown into micropolitan areas. It is not surprising that static and historically homogeneous populations would have a harder time than more cosmopolitan city dwellers adjusting to the changes immigrants bring with them. Current residents of places like Fremont may conveniently forget the Scandinavian or other European immigrants who founded these heartland communities a century and half ago. Others, however, see "small-town values" reflected in the charitable act of welcoming newcomers, of being good neighbors to them. These more welcoming residents often also appreciate the work ethic and family values that Latina/o immigrants in particular bring with them. (I have written some about these issues in the Harvard Latino Law Review here; related posts and news items are here and here).

Thinking about events in Fremont—about this culture clash in the context of the American heartland—reminded me of the agrarian roots of these "quintessentially 'American' spaces" (quoting Steve Striffler, Neither here nor there: Mexican immigrant workers and the search for home, American Ethnologist (2007)). Jim Chen has written of the extraordinary influence of our nation's agrarian past (as well as its evil consequences) on law, and Barbara Pini has written of the moral high ground that farmers enjoy in the Australian context.

In light of the power of the agrarian myth and its positive popular associations, isn't it interesting that so many immigrants are—in some ways—the heirs apparent of our agrarian past? They have become our agrarian present and future in the sense that they are doing so much of the back-breaking, low-paying work associated with intensive production agriculture and how and what we now feed ourselves—from picking crops to processing slaughtered animals. Read related items here, here and here.

Just as interesting (but also deeply troubling) is how America's heartland has become the terroir (and sometimes also the site of terror) for immigration enforcement. Two examples are the National Cattle Congress-turned-immigration court that "processed" detainees from the Postville, Iowa (population 2,273) raid and the raid on a Smithfield hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina (population 70). (More examples are here).

Obscure as rural America has become in our increasingly metro-centric nation, enforcement actions like these and anti-immigrant ordinances in places like Fremont, Nebraska have made rural America some of the most hotly contested terrain in our raging national debate over immigration.

Cross-posted to SALTlaw.org.