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Influx of Latinos can be a blessing

Rural towns may find opportunities

LINCOLN (AP) -- The influx of Hispanics into what once were predominantly white Midwestern farm towns should be seen as a potential boon instead of a problem, an expert on Latino immigration said Thursday.

"It presents an incredible amount of pressure on local communities, but I firmly believe it's an opportunity," said Sylvia Lazos, a law professor at the University of Missouri.

Lazos, in Lincoln to address the MidAmerica International Agricultural Consortium's forum on immigration issues, said the new immigrants can help revitalize rural towns, many of which are losing population.

America's Hispanic population has ballooned almost 60 percent in the past decade, surpassing 35 million. Hispanics now make up 12.5 percent of the population.

Many have come to the Midwest to work at meatpacking plants, farms, ranches and construction sites.

The 2000 Census showed Hispanic populations -- comprised of mostly Mexican descendants -- rapidly growing in Nebraska and Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota.

A 2,300-employee IBP meatpacking plant in Lexington, for example, fueled a 10-fold increase in Dawson County's Hispanic population since 1990 -- from 663 to 6,178.

Lazos said many Americans do not realize that these workers are important cogs in the U.S. economy.

"They have been a very important part of our nation's infrastructure," she said. "They build roads. They build houses. They provide the greens that you eat every day -- the tomatoes -- all of that stuff."

Lazos said communities must reach out with services to help the new residents learn English while making sure social workers, police and medical personnel also know some Spanish.

"These folks want to learn English," she said. "They understand that for their survival, they have to learn English. There is no lack of motivation.

"We have to intervene at the right time," Lazos said, "I really think that through education and strategic intervention, these local shocks to the system can be handled so that these communities can, in fact, grow and become the better for it."