For the last 40 years, Worthington has been been transforming. Once a city of mostly white residents, this southwestern city, surrounded by the state’s pork producers, is now one of the most diverse in rural Minnesota. According to Mayor Mike Kuhle, about half of the city’s residents are immigrants from places like Mexico, Laos or Somalia.

“When immigrants come, there are challenges in communication and things like that. You need to get everyone on board. And in Worthington, we are,” he said.

One person leading that change is Jessica Lee Velasco, a STEM coordinator for Nobles County 4-H and a Latina. She moved to Worthington from Texas with her family when she was a teenager. While immigrants are visible within the city, she said there’s still a lack of people of color in key leadership positions. But even that will soon change, Velasco said.

“Where I come from [in Texas], you see lawyers, you see state representatives, you see doctors, teachers, everybody in any position, and they look like me. So that is a possibility. Worthington is so diverse, and the youth I work with have that potential to take on the positions that will soon be opening up.”

Worthington Public School officials say 72-percent of its student population, minus its online course enrollees, are students of color. Dozens of languages are spoken at home. The district is scrambling for space and is adding the equivalent of four classrooms of students per year.

“Most places would be envious to have that kind of growth,” Worthington Public Schools Superintendent John Landgaard said. He said it’s the kind of growth that means more public funding comes in, but it also increases expenses. He said the district has been unsuccessful in multi-year voter referendum requests for funding for building expansions, money it needs to accommodate the influx of students. “[The growth] poses some challenges but those are positive things particularly for rural Minnesota.”

Yet there are new fears in Worthington. The Trump Administration’s tough stance on immigration has many of the city’s undocumented workers on edge. The last raid by immigration officials was in 2006; but there have been others in the region recently.

“It’s still pretty tense,” Father Jim Callahan of the Church of St. Mary said. “I think it’s more dangerous now than it was like 10 years ago, because the [racism] is so subtle. I think the majority of the people living in the town are hardworking and good people. But there’s also an element saying they shouldn’t be here. But if the immigrants weren’t here, the town would die.”

Immigrant advocates say Worthington is an example of the ongoing debate playing out in rural America. Many of these communities rely on undocumented workers.

“You have law enforcement and the [county] Sheriff’s Office openly cooperating with ICE, holding people for ICE, being sued for improperly detaining people under ICE holds,” John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center said.  “I think for residents there, Worthington is a place where people are needed for the future and prosperity of the town, while federal officials are playing out above their heads and outside of their control.”

Data researchers at Syracuse University took a snapshot of people detained by federal immigration authorities.

Meanwhile, dozens of immigrant-owned businesses line the downtown. Students of color dominate rosters of many of the high school varsity teams, such as boys’ soccer. Velasco said immigrants are in Worthington to stay.

“It’s up to you to decide you want to resist that change and accept that change and be part of that change,” Velasco said.

Velasco, a wife and mother of five, said she plans to raise her family in Worthington, and help reshape the city’s future.

This story was published November 2, 2018.