Mostly minority, mostly for Trump: Worthington mulls its future

Supada Chommes grabs a lid
Supada Chommes grabs a lid to put back on a pot of rice in the kitchen at Top Asian Food in Worthington, Minn. The business is owned by two families, one Thai and one Lao.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Immigration's made Worthington more diverse than any other large Minnesota city. It's reaped the economic benefits of many of its minority residents, who are now in the majority.

And yet about 54 percent of the presidential vote here went to Donald Trump, whose immigration policies are now causing plenty of concern in southwestern Minnesota.

The Election Day vote doesn't seem to square up with the town's need for immigrant workers and its increasingly diverse population, which began transforming Worthington from a nearly all-white community to a rainbow of faces some 30 years ago when the town's meatpacking plant expanded.

Lesly Felix takes orders
Lesly Felix takes orders from the Boneschans family at El Mexicano restaurant in Worthington. "We are all the same," Felix's co-worker Omar Martinez said. "We all need to work together to bring this community out."
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Antonio Colindres came to Worthington from California about 25 years ago for a job at the packing plant. At the time, the city was more than 93 percent white and there were complaints the newcomers were stealing jobs, or here to milk the welfare system, he recalled, adding there's a lot less friction now than in the past.

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"You can see this city is a peaceful city," said Colindres.

Colindres credits the police department for that. Law enforcement does not randomly stop people to check their immigration status and they're also willing to meet with and answer questions from minority groups.

People of color account for six of every 10 residents now. Hispanics and Latinos represent four in 10 residents.

The primarily Latino immigrants who flooded into the city are hardworking people who share the values of other residents, said Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle.

A UFC mixed-martial arts fight airs on TV
A UFC mixed-martial arts fight airs on the TV at the Azteca store in Worthington, as Eyob Gebre (not pictured) watches the start of a fight. Gebre said he emigrated from Eritrea in 1990.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

"They just want prosperity. They want nice places to live," said Kuhle. "We're doing good at it, we're doing well."

The numbers bear that out. Worthington's jobless rate is consistently below the statewide average, and was substantially lower during the great recession. You can also see economic vitality downtown.

Standing on 10th Street, Kuhle pointed out the dozen or so minority-owned businesses that have opened, boosting a downtown area that was struggling 20 years ago.

"There were quite a few empty storefronts. The immigrant population has stepped in and they've done a good job," said Kuhle.

Edgar Mendez inside his store
Edgar Mendez, owner of the store Guatemala in downtown Worthington, says he has seen his business slow since President Trump took office because he believes people are scared due to Trump's policies on immigrants.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Despite that upbeat history, immigrants in Worthington say the tension level has risen recently and they point the finger at Trump's vows to toughen U.S. policy on immigration.

Earlier this month about 100 students demonstrated near Worthington High School to spotlight the contributions immigrants make in the U.S.

Event organizer Mariel Castaneda said the president's more aggressive stance on deportation has made some people in town fearful. She said she's heard more racist comments directed at minority students since the election. And the demonstration itself incited hostility.

"Today a lot of people come by and they flip the finger, they say things," said Castaneda. "But we're here, we're respectful, we're not doing anything bad. We're just protesting peacefully."

Downtown clothing and nutrition store owner Edgar David Morente Mendez said he's felt immigrants' rising level of fear.

His business is down by half since Trump was elected, he said, adding that with all the talk and fear of immigration roundups, some people are afraid to go out in public.

"We are not criminal," said Mendez. "We work hard."

Correction (Feb. 27, 2017): An earlier version of this story had the wrong first name of Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle.