The US birthrate is dropping. This Iowa county is an exception.

In 2006, Iowa’s governor, Tom Vilsack, made a pitch to young Iowans who had moved away, leaving behind a shrinking, aging workforce. His “Come back to Iowa, please” campaign targeted college graduates living in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where Mr. Vilsack hosted cocktail parties and promised that Iowa offered more than “hogs, acres of corn, and old people.”

The campaign fizzled out as young Iowans continued to seek bright lights elsewhere after college, part of a perennial brain drain still facing this and other Midwestern states. 

But Iowa has had far greater success attracting another group: immigrants from Mexico and Central America. 

Why We Wrote This

Immigration may be one way to boost the declining U.S. birthrate, which hits rural areas especially hard. That’s exemplified by Sioux County, Iowa, now home to a growing population and new schools.

In the 2020 census, Sioux County was one of the only nonmetropolitan counties in Iowa that grew its population. Sioux Center, the largest town, has nearly 9,000 residents today, up from 7,000 in 2010. Its rural industries and services are drawing in foreign and U.S.-born workers who slaughter pigs, milk cows, collect eggs, and build houses and schools for a growing population. 

Mexicans have long moved to Iowa for work, beginning in the 1880s with railroad and farm laborers, though their numbers remained small. That changed in the 1990s as meat packers began to recruit more migrants and refugees. By 2022, Hispanics or Latinos comprised 6.9% of Iowa’s population, or 221,805 people, of which around three-quarters were Mexican, up from less than 20,000 in 1970.

Some of the newcomers had work permits. Others didn’t. In rural towns, they began arriving in larger numbers to work on farms and in factories. Migrants joined and founded churches, set up small businesses, and started families. “They come here to get a job, to earn money, and to live better,” says Carlos Perez, a Venezuelan-born evangelical pastor who moved to Iowa in 2019.

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor

A grain storage facility is seen in Sioux Center, Iowa, Feb. 13, 2024. The population of Sioux Center has grown rapidly in recent decades, led by immigrants from Mexico and Central America moving to work in agricultural and manufacturing industries.

To some, Sioux County offers a vision of immigration as a growth engine in an era of falling fertility throughout the United States. Having peaked in 2007 at 4.3 million per year, births began falling in 2008. They hit a new low last year at 3.7 million.

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