Hispanic Segregation in America's New Rural Boomtowns

(September 2007) America’s Hispanic population is on the move. One-third of recent Mexican immigrants to the United States from 1995 to 2000 settled outside of traditional gateway states in the Southwest (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California). This is a remarkable break from the past. During 1975-1980, for example, only 9 percent of Mexican immigrants settled outside of traditional gateway states.1

Perhaps more significant, over 70 percent of immigrants in new gateway states, including Colorado, Florida, and Nevada, lived in the suburbs (51 percent) or in rural areas (21 percent). Rural Hispanics accounted for nearly 26 percent of nonmetro population growth over the 1990s and 45 percent between 2000 and 2006, while representing only 5.4 percent of the nonmetro population.2

This rapid growth of Hispanics has important demographic implications for rural and small-town America. Had Hispanics not moved in, more than 200 rural counties would have shrunk in population during the early 2000s.

Hispanics are rapidly transforming the social and economic fabric of many small towns, where they have come to work—often at low wages—in food processing plants, agriculture, and construction. But to what extent have these Hispanics been incorporated into their new communities and local housing markets? In other words, do they share the same neighborhoods or live apart from non-Hispanic whites?

Measuring Residential Segregation

Case studies of rural destination communities often provide a rather sketchy portrait of immigrant incorporation. Marshalltown, Iowa, a community of about 26,000 people, is a good example. Its Hispanic population grew from fewer than 300 to more than 3,500 between 1990 and 2000.3 But we understand little about how the local housing market has accommodated such an unprecedented influx of Hispanics or how they are incorporated into previously homogenous Anglo neighborhoods in Marshalltown, and other similarly affected communities. For rural immigrant communities working in the poultry industry in North Carolina, for example, employers sometimes provide temporary housing (trailers) to attract Hispanic immigrant workers.4 This practice effectively marginalizes new arrivals from the rest of the largely Anglo community. Our research addresses questions about Hispanic residential segregation in rural Hispanic “boomtowns.” We first identified 1,477 places with at least a 10 percent Hispanic population.5 Block-level data were then used to measure racial residential segregation. The segregation (or dissimilarity) index varies from zero (no segregation) to 100 (complete segregation). Overall, both in 1990 and 2000, the segregation index was roughly 50—which is moderately high by conventional standards. This means that 50 percent of small-town Hispanics would have to move to other blocks in the community to achieve geographic parity with Anglos (the Hispanic percentage would be identical in each block in the community). Stated differently, each block would have the same percentage of Hispanics as the community overall.6 The corresponding level for rural blacks was much higher (a segregation index of 67). Rural Hispanics are less segregated overall than rural blacks, but they tend to be more residentially segregated on average than their metropolitan counterparts (see figure).7

Segregation in Metro and Nonmetro Areas

Note: The segregation index, or dissimilarity index, is a measure of segregation. A segregation index of 50 means that 50 percent of small-town Hispanics would have to move to other blocks in the community to achieve the same residential patterns as Anglos.
Source: Daniel T. Lichter et al., Demography (2007): 563-81.

Boomtown Segregation

Beyond towns that started out at least 10 percent Hispanic, what about segregation patterns in Hispanic boomtowns—those experiencing extraordinary Hispanic growth? Here, we identified 20 small towns with very small Hispanic populations in 1990 that experienced the largest absolute Hispanic population growth over the subsequent decade. Anglos in these communities were exposed—for the first time—to significant numbers of Hispanics. As shown in the table, Hispanic segregation rates in small towns with fast-growing Hispanic populations exceeded the nationwide average of Hispanic/non-Hispanic white segregation, with the exception of two places (Norwalk, Wisc., and Green Forest, Ark.). Segregation in communities with fast-growing Hispanic populations is often very high, even by metropolitan standards.

As a typical case, Milan, Mo., the county seat of Sullivan County (in the northcentral part of the state), had a population of 1,958 in 2000. Only five Hispanics lived in Milan in 1990. By 2000, however, 428 Hispanics lived there—making up more than 20 percent of the town’s population. But they were highly segregated from the local Anglo population. Milan had a poultry processing plant that reopened in 2004. As in other communities, the meat processing plant draws many Hispanics to this mostly Anglo town.8

Top 20 Fastest-Growing Nonmetro Hispanic Communities in the U.S.

Segregation index
Hispanic population
Wallace, NC
Bells, TN
West Point, NE
Forest, MS
Wakefield. NE
Postville, LA
Dobson, NC
North Wilkesboro, NC
St. Pauls, NC
Cricket, NC
Magnolia, NC
Angier, NC
Trion, GA
Monterey, TN
Hardeeville, SC
Ellijay, GA
Milan, MO
Waldron, AR
Collinsville, AL
Green Forest, AR

Note: The segregation index represents a measure of segregation that varies between 0 (no segregation) and 100 (complete segregation of Hispanics from Anglos).
Source: Estimates calculated by the authors using place and block data from the 1990 and 2000 Census summary files.

What’s Next?

The influx of Hispanics has sometimes threatened the social order of many small towns. Whether local communities have embraced their newcomers is clearly revealed here in residential segregation, which is often very high and which means that rural Hispanics live in fairly distinct enclaves with little residential mixing with Anglos. Whether segregation levels increase or decrease over the near term will depend on whether Hispanic newcomers experience upward socioeconomic mobility, and on whether their aspirations for better housing and good neighborhoods are accommodated in their newly adopted home towns. The lesson from urban neighborhood studies is that a rapid influx of Hispanic migrants may trigger a demographic response, perhaps in the form of rural “white flight,” or raise other social and economic concerns such as changes in housing values or crime. These situations require dispassionate research, and answers depend in part on whether newcomers are embraced by their Anglo neighbors.

Domenico Parisi is associate professor in the department of sociology at Mississippi State University and is coordinator of the Workforce, Economic, and Community Development Research Unit at the Social Science Research Center. Daniel T. Lichter is Ferris Family Professor in the department of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center.


  1. See Víctor Zúñiga and Rubén Hernández-León, eds., New Destinations of Mexican Immigration in the United States: Community Formation, Local Responses and Inter-Group Relations (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005); and Leif Jensen, “New Immigrant Settlements in Rural America: Problems, Prospects and Policies,” Reports on Rural America 1, no. 3 (2006).
  2. Kenneth M. Johnson and Daniel T. Lichter, “Demographic Components of Population Change: Immigration and the Growing Hispanic Population in New Rural Destinations” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, Santa Clara, CA, Aug. 4, 2007).
  3. Phyllis L. Baker and Douglas R. Hotek, “Perhaps a Blessing: Skills and Contributions of Recent Mexican Immigrants in the Rural Midwest,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 25, no. 4 (2003): 448-68.
  4. David C. Griffith, “Rural Industry and Mexican Immigration and Settlement in North Carolina,” in New Destinations of Mexican Immigration in the United States, ed. Víctor Zúñiga and Rubén Hernández-León (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005).
  5. Data from the 2000 decennial Census showed that a large share—nearly 60 percent—of the nonmetro Hispanic population lived in our nonmetro sample of places in 2000; our sample accounts for roughly 40 percent of the entire nonmetro Hispanic population.
  6. If 20 percent of the community were Hispanic, then a completely unsegregated community would be one in which each block in the community would be 20 percent Hispanic.
  7. Daniel T. Lichter et al., “National Estimates of Racial Segregation in Rural and Small-Town America,” Demography 44, no. 3 (2007): 563-81.
  8. William Kandel and Emilio Parrado, “Restructuring of the U.S. Meat Processing Industry and New Hispanic Migrant Destinations,” Population and Development Review 31, no. 3 (2005): 447-71.