“Superhero” Immigrants Bring Hope to Small Town America. But Can They Save This Dying Town? By DoBetterNews
Pete Buttigieg was worried. His construction business in Skinkton, Illinois needed to hire a couple of welders for a big new job. A tech bro from Chicago had recently bought the old Dairy Queen. The tech bro, who grew up in Skinkton and came home to visit about twice a year, wanted to transform the Dairy Queen into a rock climbing gym for his visits. Buttigeig won the contract to build the gym, but he needed to find additional workers, stat.
“I was starting to panic,” Buttigieg told DoBetterNews. “Skinkton is a small town and getting smaller. There just aren’t enough welders to be had.”
Then Buttigieg heard that the government was helping a few hundred immigrant families relocate to Skinkton from the border as part of the government’s “Superheros For America” program. Turns out, a couple of the new arrivals had welding experience. One had even worked for a major construction company in Honduras, before gang violence had forced him to flee.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Buttigieg said. “It was like the answer to my prayers. I called Mayor Bernie immediately to get their contact info. I want to give them a call as soon as they arrive. I don’t want to miss my chance.”
Buttigieg wasn’t the only one thrilled by the news that new families were moving to Skinkton.
“As far as I see it, their loss is our gain,” said Elizabeth Warren, the manager of the Dilly Dolly Diner off Route 231, speaking of Central American countries. “If they don’t want workers, we’ll take ’em. My worry is social security. How are my kids going to get their checks if their ain’t enough people paying into the system? I figure the immigrants are the solution.”
I asked Warren if she was afraid that the immigrants would take jobs away from locals.
“I ain’t never heard of anyone being fired so their boss could hire a newcomer who don’t even speak English. Besides, I don’t even serve tacos, so if they want to open a restaurant, I say, why not? It’s not like they’re going to outdo my meatloaf. No way, no how.”
“Besides,” she went on, taking an apple pie out of the oven behind her and placing it to cool on the windowsill, “they gotta eat, right? I figure once they taste my meatloaf, they’ll be regulars here. Say, do you know how to say ‘meatloaf’ in Spanish?”
Across the town, the reaction is pretty much the same. Since the typewriter plant closed down ten years ago, many young people had chosen to move away, traveling to Chicago, or even further, to find better paying jobs. Many of the storefronts on Main Street were now boarded up and there was the sense that the town was destined to die out if some new people didn’t move in soon.
But what American family would choose to relocate to Skinkton? Enter the “Superheros for America” program, which offered immigrant families financial assistance to relocate to small, American towns. But the “Superhero” program has not been without controversy. After the bidding system allowed big cities like Chicago to scoop up all the families, the government began a nation-wide fraud investigation that led to 20 convictions of city mayors nation-wide.
“Them city folks already got so many people,” Warren says, anger in her voice, “why they gotta take our immigrants too?”
The fairness of the “Superhero” program is proving to be a major re-election issue for the President, who ran on a platform of “Small Towns First.” Now, the government is piloting a new lottery system to make sure even small towns like Skinkton get a shot at hosting a few families. But the government can only do so much. After the families arrive, it’s up to Skinkton to make it worth their while to stay.
Mayor Bernie Sanders sees the “Superheros” program as his last resort. It follows a long series of failed attempts to get American families to move to Skinkton. A few years ago, the Mayor had offered non-resident families $10,000 if they would relocate to Skinkton and put the money towards Bitcoin mining. A few families have taken him up on the offer, but since the collapse of the value of Bitcoin, the Mayor figured it would only be a matter of time before they left again.
“Thing is, there’s really nothing unique about Skinkton, except maybe for the smell. But most folks don’t see that as a positive. I don’t know, maybe the rock climbing place will make a difference?”
I asked him about the new “Superhero” families who would be moving in.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled, frankly. I just hope they’ll decide to stay here. This might be the break we need, but I don’t want to get hopes up too much around town. We’ve been let down so many times before…the Ladies Gardening Society is planning a parade and everything. I just hope it works out.”
He pulled thoughtfully at the end of his long, grey beard, which spilled down his chest, partially covering his grey, Harley Davidson tee shirt. I got the impression that Bernie was exhausted by the effort to keep Skinkton going, when he’d clearly rather be on the open road on his famous Harley, riding without a care in the world. Instead, he was in Skinkton’s tiny Mayor’s office behind the shuttered Walmart, pondering the first ray of hope to come to Skinkton in years.
“Do you think they’ll open one of those burrito joints?” he went on, thoughtfully. “Between that and the rock climbing place, Skinkton might almost feel like San Francisco. Maybe that will attract some more people.”
After my meeting with Mayor Benrie, I took a walk down Main Street. It was a beautiful spring afternoon and a group of women were hanging streamers from lamp posts, getting ready for the parade for the arriving families. By breathing through my mouth to avoid the smell, and by ignoring the boarded up Bargain Shopper Discount Store to my left, I could almost picture a bright future for Skinkton. If only they can convince the immigrant families to stay.