How Immigrants Can Revitalize Rural Communities

For much of its history, Siler City, North Carolina was mostly white; now, due to jobs in poultry processing, the town is 40% Latinx. Driving through downtown, the demographic change is marked by the tiendas, beauty salons, and evangelical churches with signs en español that line the streets. Like many towns across the state, Siler City suffered when the furniture and textile industries moved elsewhere. Though the poultry processing plants remained, the workforce changed as native-born workers no longer wanted low-paying, dangerous jobs.1 Immigrants not only filled job shortages at the poultry plant and storefronts downtown: this new population also brought new life to a dying industrial town.

Siler City is not an isolated example. Across the South and Midwest, rural communities are experiencing an influx of Latinxs in search of economic opportunity. Latinxs accounted for more than half of the rural population gain in this decade.2 Initially drawn to work in agriculture or meat processing, many choose to settle in these places, some opening small businesses. In fact, immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses as their native-born counterparts.3 These businesses contribute to economic development and community building in a number of ways including paying taxes, creating jobs, reducing commercial vacancy downtown, and providing spaces for cultural interaction.4 Often, they are launched without technical assistance or formal loans which demonstrate entrepreneurs’ resourcefulness and tenacity but also highlights the need for more institutionalized support.

Providing support for Latinx entrepreneurship can be a promising strategy for economic development in rural communities; however, this approach requires an understanding of the unique barriers and needs of Latinx entrepreneurs. Latinxs are more likely to finance their businesses with personal savings or informal loans from families and friends and are less likely to seek loans from financial institutions.5 Due to language or cultural barriers, they may not be able to access technical assistance or understand the processes for starting a business. To effectively engage Latinx business owners, local institutions will need to develop greater cultural competency as well as more targeted and inclusive approaches to outreach.


Mural in Downtown Siler City. Mural and Photo Credit: JR Butler, Siler City Mural Society. 

Some organizations and institutions have already begun integrating these concepts into their programs. The Iowa State University Extension and Outreach office, for example, has a dedicated facilitator who works closely with Latinx business owners to navigate the start-up process and facilitate community forums with existing residents.6 The office also created “A Citizen’s Guide for Change” that offers lessons from four Iowa communities that have experienced an influx of Latinx immigrants. More and more, communities are recognizing the existing contributions and untapped potential of immigrants.

Efforts are already underway in Siler City, North Carolina to better integrate Latinxs and leverage their potential for entrepreneurship. In 2017, Siler City underwent a multi-year community planning process to identify issues affecting the immigrant population and generate public policies. Part of the Building Integrated Communities Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the process involved a community assessment and a series of stakeholder workshops. Over 75 residents representing a diverse sample of immigrants in Chatham County participated, along with town officials and service providers. As a result of these workshops, town officials and service providers have a better sense of what immigrants need and how they can support integration.7 In the next year, the town will work toward implementing aspects of the Building Integrated Communities action plan, including having the planning department visit existing Latinx businesses and hosting a starting a business seminar in Spanish.

The extent to which rural communities adapt to change or welcome newcomers could potentially determine their future. At a time when decline and despair are the dominant narratives of rural America, Latinx immigrants are a source of renewal and hope. By welcoming diversity, small towns can demonstrate to the rest of the country how to embrace inclusiveness and collaborate as a community.

About the Author: Lucia Constantine is a recent graduate of DCRP, interested in immigrant integration and inclusive economic development. Prior to coming to UNC, Lucia worked in higher education and nonprofits. She lives in Durham and enjoys taking her dog to the Eno.

Featured image: A family from Siler City enjoying the playground. Photo credit: Siler City,

  1. Alexander, C. S. (2012). Explaining Peripheral Labor * A Poultry Industry Case Study. Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, 33(2), 353–399.
  2. Johnson, K. M. (2012). Rural Demographic Change in the New Century. Carsey Institute, Winter(44), 1–12.
  3. Fairlie, R. (2012). Open for business: How Immigrants Are Driving Small Business Creation in the United States.
  4. Mathema, S., Svajlenka, N. P., & Hermann, A. (2018). Revival and Opportunity Immigrants in Rural America.
  5. Bates, T., & Robb, A. (2015). Impacts of Owner Race and Geographic Context on Access to Small-Business Financing. Economic Development Quarterly, 30 (2), 159–170.
  6. McDaniel, P. (2014). Revitalization in the Heartland of America: Welcoming Immigrant Entrepreneurs for Economic Development.
  7. The Latino Migration Project. (2019) Building Integrated Communities in Siler City: Action Plan for Immigrant Integration.