Modest Zinzindohoue commutes to the University of Minnesota three days a week, where he is an undergraduate student studying animal sciences. He’s considering moving closer to the Twin Cities, to eliminate the long commute and improve his genetic engineering job prospects. Still, he called Austin a good place to start a life in the U.S. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Soom Chandaswang remembers the first day she walked into her first-grade class in Worthington and realized she was the only student of color. Her family had just moved from Laos. This was 30 years ago and, at the time, there were probably 10 Asian families in the area, according to Chandaswang.

“Now it’s the opposite,” she said. “You go into a classroom now and the majority are the minorities.”

Chandaswang is director of the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, an organization that works with immigrant students and their parents in one of the fastest-changing counties in Minnesota. Much of her work brings her into classrooms in six school districts that have seen an increasing number of Latino, Karen, Hmong, and East and West African students. 

​​“Seeing the needs of the families, and my own family as well, has really taught me what it means to be coming to the U.S. as an immigrant,” Chandaswang said.

Minnesota’s small cities are becoming more diverse. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, over the last decade, Nobles County, with its county seat of Worthington, experienced the state’s largest increase in people of color. In 2010, the county’s population was two-thirds white, but in 2020, its residents were 43 percent people of color. The census results show that the nation as a whole is diversifying, but some counties in southern Minnesota are ahead of the curve.

Soom Chandaswang and her family immigrated from Laos 30 years ago. She grew up in Worthington and now works for the Nobles County Integration Collaborative. Credit: Soom Chandaswang

Mower County, with its county seat of Austin, also has experienced a significant influx of immigrants and people of color. While the county was 84 percent white in 2010, the 2020 census shows the county now made up of 25 percent people of color.

One thing these two counties have in common is the meatpacking industry. Worthington, a city of about 13,000 people, is home to a pork-processing plant run by JBS Foods, which employs 2,000 workers, many of them immigrants. Austin, home to around 25,000 people, has two meatpacking plants—one run by Quality Pork Processors and the other by Hormel Foods—both of which employ immigrants as part of their workforces.

Residents in both cities told Sahan Journal they’ve noticed significant changes, not just in the demographics of their hometowns, but also in the fabric of the communities themselves. An influx of immigrants from all over the world has made these cities more vibrant and interesting, they say, while also staving off the population decline seen in many small Minnesota cities.

Breaking down the numbers

The U.S. Census is a Constitutionally mandated count of residents in the nation conducted every 10 years. The results of the census determine how federal funds are allocated to states and counties. Each state receives a certain number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on census results, too.

The 2020 census revealed data on the racial and ethnic diversity of the nation by including each county’s “diversity index,” or the likelihood that two residents chosen at random will be from different racial and ethnic groups. Then, it compared the diversity index figures from 2010 to those from 2020.

Nobles County received a 59 percent diversity index score, up almost 10 percent from 2010. That’s higher than Hennepin County’s 54 percent score. Mower County was given a 42.5 percent diversity score, an improvement of almost 15 percent since 2010.

According to Ellen Wolter, a researcher at Minnesota Compass, which produces community data, these are significant changes. An increase in residents of color in some greater Minnesota counties offsets a countertrend of population loss, particularly of white people, due to death or migration.

“Individuals who are moving into the community are able to contribute through having jobs and supporting the community in ways that it wouldn’t necessarily be supported if there was population loss,” Wolter said. “It drives a thriving economy when individuals are moving in.”

Wolter broke down the numbers in Nobles and Mower counties even further. In Nobles County, 43 percent of residents identify as people of color. But, in the county seat of Worthington, nearly two-thirds of residents identify as such. Most of the growth there, she said, has been among Latinos.

Mower County saw a similar increase in diversity. Today, a quarter of residents in the county identify as people of color, mostly Latino and Asian.

Wolter noted that other cities, like Willmar in Kandiyohi County and St. Cloud in Sherburne County, also saw large increases in residents of color.

Why are immigrants moving in—and from where?

Sara Karki is an attorney at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota’s office in Austin, which provides legal assistance to immigrants and refugees. Karki said she’s been working on an increasing number of cases in Worthington and Austin. A lot of her clients are employed in the meatpacking industry. That’s because the jobs don’t require a lot of training and—perhaps most importantly—employees don’t have to speak English to do the work.

“If we didn’t have immigration, we would have net population loss,” Karki said. “The leadership has been particularly cognizant of the need to be welcoming. It’s not just ‘Oh, people are coming to steal jobs.’ It’s a realization that they need everyone who’s coming to fill the jobs that they have—and they’re still often short of workers.”

Meatpacking plants are the biggest draws in Minnesota towns like Worthington, Austin, and Willmar, Karki said. But different plants are attractive to different workers. She suggested that pork plants in Austin, for example, might be less likely to draw Somali immigrants, since many of them are Muslims who don’t consume pork. Somali immigrants might instead move to Willmar to work in turkey processing, Karki said. 

On the other hand, Latino, Karen, and West African immigrants are likely to settle in Worthington and Austin. She’s noticed a new wave of immigrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan, too.

“There’s a feeling of similarity to home in that many people are from small towns in their birth countries, so they like the small-town feel and are used to agricultural settings,” Karki explained.

Modeste Zinzindohoue, one of Karki’s clients, moved to Austin for exactly that reason. He currently commutes to the University of Minnesota three days a week, where he is an undergraduate student studying animal sciences.

Zinzindohoue moved to the United States from Benin, in West Africa, in 2014, living in Texas at first. But, a friend convinced Zinzindohoue that life was more affordable and peaceful in the small Minnesota city of Austin.

“Besides the weather, the main thing that was different for me was, there were more opportunities to pursue what I wanted to do,” he said. “It was easier for me to do what I wanted to do.”

Zinzindohoue’s friend, an Austin resident, helped him find a place to live, and he eventually started working as a home health aide. He also started school at Riverland Community College, where agricultural sciences sparked his interest. At Riverland, Zinzindohoue got the chance to do field research on farms. His teachers were also farmers.

Now that he’s studying animal sciences at the University of Minnesota, Zinzindohoue said he wants to become a genetic engineer. He’s considering moving closer to the Twin Cities, to eliminate the long commute and improve his genetic engineering job prospects.

Still, he called Austin a good place to start a life in the U.S. The city hosts a large, close-knit Beninese community. Zinzindohoue made a lot of friends in community college, too, including among white and Latino students. Because they’d lived in Austin longer than he had, he said, they were crucial resources for him.

“They’re very helpful and they are lovely people,” Zinzindohoue said of his friends and community. “I feel hope here.”

‘It’s a very good place to raise your children’

One of Zinzindohoue’s friends in Austin, a fellow immigrant from Benin, Jean Weke, works for Hormel Foods. He moved to Austin from the Netherlands, upon a cousin’s recommendation, about 11 years ago.

“When I got here, I got a better job, better than the one I got in the Netherlands,” Weke said. At first, he worked for Quality Pork Processors. “Two months later, my family joined me here in Austin, and since then we decided to stay here. It’s a very good place to raise your children.”

Weke said he’s stayed in Austin for so long because he wants his four children—ages 4, 9, 14, and 17—to grow up in a peaceful town. He especially appreciates how close everything is to his home: the markets, the mall, his workplace, and the schools.

“When I was coming here in 2010, we were about five people from Benin. Today, we’re more than 500 in the community. People are moving here to Austin because we talk to them about Austin, how good it is to live in Austin, how it’s easier to find a job and get a degree.”

jean weke

He remembers that the first few weeks in his new home were really difficult. But he found encouragement from his neighbors and other members of the Beninese community. Now, he’s encouraging other friends to move to Austin and providing that same sort of support.

“When I was coming here in 2010, we were about five people from Benin,” Weke said. “Today, we’re more than 500 in the community. People are moving here to Austin because we talk to them about Austin, how good it is to live in Austin, how it’s easier to find a job and get a degree.”

Weke added that it’s important for his kids to be able to walk into a classroom and see not just other Beninese students, but students from immigrant families from all over. Today, almost 50 languages are spoken in the Austin Public Schools.

Watching a hometown grow

Back in Worthington, Soom Chandaswang works to establish a welcoming environment in schools across Nobles County. While the student body is much more diverse than when Chandaswang was in school, she’s trying to recruit more teachers of color.

“In the last 10 years, the newer generation of immigrants that are here—they’re in the same spot my family was in when we first came,” Chandaswang said. “With the language barriers, not knowing how to navigate the school system or even drive, all of that. It’s a similar type of experience.”

For example, Chandaswang grew up interpreting for her Lao parents. Whether she was translating letters or speaking with doctors, she and her siblings used to rotate as interpreters. She recognizes that a lot of the students she serves carry that same responsibility at home, which means both students and parents need additional support.

“You go into a classroom now and the majority are the minorities.”

Soom Chandaswang

As director of the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, which works in school districts to close the achievement gap for students of color, she has the tools to provide that support. The organization provides after-school programming, in-class language support, leadership development, college tours, and career services.

It feels good to see her hometown grow, Chandaswang said. Today, Worthington’s churches offer services in Spanish, Karen, and Lao. Her family and friends often shop for groceries at Top Asian, but it’s not unusual to see non-Asian immigrants shopping for ingredients there, too. Residents of Worthington might go out to eat at Panda House, El Azteca, or El Mexicano.

Chandaswang noted that Worthington, despite being welcoming to immigrants, lacks one thing: a community center. The census results might show an increasing need for a place new residents can find support, but Chandaswang doesn’t think the city will build one anytime soon.

“It’s been in conversation but nothing comes about it,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to see it within a year or two. Maybe in 10 years?” She laughed when she realized: That’s when the next census will be counted.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.