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Guest Column: Rural Immigrants to Sioux Falls Not Suited for 21st-Century City Life?

The correspondent who got me thinking about how safe it is for folks to move to South Dakota offers some armchair sociology comparing the quality of life in a comparable urban area in Michigan to the quality of life in Sioux Falls. My correspondent suggests that other cities may be safer than Sioux Falls because their foreign immigrants are better equipped to deal with the challenges of not just urban life but 21st-century life than the largely domestic, rural immigrants who drive growth in Sioux Falls:

This Michigan city is suburb of a major city that is known for its high crime rate. It is a “middle” suburb. It has a lot of manufacturing, but it also has a fair number of professionals. It is fairly balanced from an economic perspective.  Not high end, but not low end either.
When folks from out there visit this city, they often say “hey, this looks a lot like Sioux Falls”.  According to the census bureau, 27% of the population is foreign born, compared to 8.5% for Sioux Falls. Most of these folk are from the Middle East. My guess is about 50% Muslim, and 50% Christian. There are also many Eastern Europeans, South Asian and East Asians as well. These folks are emigrating from densely populated urban areas.
These immigrants don’t show up with a lot of resources usually, but they are not destitute either. Even though they may not have great language skills, but they understand the urban environment and know how to function in it.  They are not intimidated by the public and private bureaucracies they have to navigate here.
 These folk usually work at lower end job for a while and build their social network.  They eventually get a bachelor’s degree, usually in STEM field and/or start a small business. Their kids work in theses small business.  Education is very valued by these folks, so the kids tend to be high academic achievers and often go to major universities, again majoring in STEM fields.  They often get advanced degrees. The parents will often make huge sacrifices to make sure their kids will get these educational opportunities.
These folks are simply too busy to be engaging in criminal activity. They tend to support the police. They take of their homes, and are vested in the success of the community and schools. Their families are very tight knit.  It’s not Utopia.  There are definitely significant problems, but the community is safe.

Sioux Falls has a different immigration situation. It appear that most of the folks are natural born Americans. Most of these folks are coming from small towns in the region.

My take on this, based on my own experience moving to the big city and watching others move from small American towns and rural areas is this:
Someone who emigrates from a major population center on the other side of the world and shows up not being able to speak English can function much better in large US city than someone coming from a small US community.  Their small community can be as little as few hours away from this same large US city. The foreign immigrant simply has much better social functioning skills than the native born American from the small town.
Sioux Falls is pretty good sized at 185,000. Here is why I think the crime rate is so much higher out there.
Folks are coming from isolated small towns and rural areas in the region. They are coming one of two ways:
1. Directly—They have grown up in these isolated rural communities with limited contact with the outside world. They have been pumped up with all kinds of screwy ideas about the rest of the world, but have no personal experience with that world. There are no opportunities in these small communities, so they give Sioux Falls a try. Sioux Falls is big enough and diverse enough to require urban survival skills these folks simply don’t have.
2. Indirectly—these folks come from the same isolated communities, but they go off to another major urban center. It doesn’t go well.  They have to come back, but their situation has gotten to the point they can’t go back to their small community, so they go to Sioux Falls. They bring back additional social challenges in the form of spouses, ex-spouses, and children.
 The final group are people who have no connection to South Dakota, but have seen the messaging coming out of the state that says:
  • Are you dysfunctional?
  • Can’t cope?
  • Can’t get along with anyone to save your soul?
  • Come to South Dakota, we welcome you.
All these folks end up in together in Sioux Falls. Things don’t go well for a lot of them. They start to self medicate. The drug man needs his money. Pretty soon you have a self perpetuating crime wave that can’t be stopped.
In the 21st century, we live in a densely populated, highly connected, technologically advanced, diverse world. In order to survive, people will need to have technical skills and high social functioning. In order to thrive, they will also need critical thinking skills and creativity. Hiding out in the boonies will not exempt folks from this [Dakota Free Press reader, 2021.05.02].
My correspondent raises interesting questions: Does Sioux Falls suffer from a large population of people seeking refuge from the 21st century? Are residents of Sioux Falls (not just the bad Iowegian drivers, but the locals new and old) less equipped for modern city life than the residents of comparable burgs nationwide? Is Sioux Falls really that different from comparable cities, and if so, why?


  1. Wayne 2021-05-12 09:50

    It’s an interesting hypothesis, though couched with a considerable amount of disdain for the rural immigrant that reveals the author’s biases. My anecdotal experience with young adults has been with the “townies” of Sioux Falls lacking the coping skills to thrive in metro environments; I know of a number of friends raised in Sioux Falls who sought their fortunes in the “big city” and floundered, eventually returning to South Dakota or continuing to flounder in another metro. Conversely, my friends who moved from smaller towns to Sioux Falls or other large metros have found decent jobs and are plugging away. However, none of them have resorted to crime, so I’ll admit my anecdotes aren’t helpful in identifying who resorts to crimes and why.

    My perspective from my five years living in Sioux Falls in a tired, lower-income part of town is the rural transplants were the most friendly, most neighborly of folks, and they made it super tough to move out because I felt safe living next to them. The out-of-staters that moved in to the community tended to churn quickly for a variety of reasons (often weather related), but they never were perpetrators of crime to my knowledge. Our neighborhood was always cognizant of the region north of us, which had a much lower home-ownership rate and also a much higher crime rate.

    Anecdotes aside, it would be hard to tease out data which shows us who moved from small towns to Sioux Falls and also committed crimes vs. those who were raised in Sioux Falls / immigrated from other metro areas that committed crimes vs. those that immigrated from overseas and committed crimes. I can’t even locate Sioux Falls crime data by demographics.

  2. Donald Pay 2021-05-12 11:53

    I think it has more to do with ex-pat immigrants having a community around them that is supportive. Rural whites who move to the big city often young and can’t find people of a mixed ages with a similar background.
    Immigrants tend to move into communities that have other folks of similar ethnicity or religion. That was certainly true of German, Dutch, Czech and Norwegian folks in small towns and agricultural communities in the Midwest, as it was for various small areas of big cities today and in years past.

    My daughter and I have talked about this a lot. She has 15 years of experience in being an ex-pat coming from Rapid City to Kunming and Beijing. One way she eased into it was to have a group of ex-pat Americans, Brits, and Australians with similar cultures to lean on when needed. They enjoyed teaching their Chinese friends about various western customs as they learned from them how Chinese culture works. The young adults form little family groups. Someone takes on the “Mom” identify, another one is “Dad,” someone is the social director, etc. They cook meals together, especially around western holidays. It’s very much like what happens in immigrant communities here.

  3. Mark Anderson 2021-05-12 13:44

    I don’t know, having grown up in Sioux Falls I’ve always had a soft spot for it. In Sarasota I had two of Mike Peter’s kids as my students and one son in law, but thats another story, that’s how I met Chris Brown who does Hagar the Horrible, Sarasota was hometown to several cartoonists. We both used to eat at Chutneys to which he had given drawings. He went to an event in Sioux Falls and liked it so much because it reminded him of the Sarasota that he’d grown up in, so he moved there. I don’t know if the cold weather made drawing the viking Hagar more realistic than the semi tropic Sarasota but I thought that might be a story for you of a transplant from out of state. I don’t know if he’s still there, Mike Peter’s left Sarasota and came back. When your job is drawing on paper you can move anywhere.

  4. Joe 2021-05-12 20:38

    The Sioux Falls crime rate – violent crime in particular – is extremely average by US standards.

    Many places in the US have seen an uptick in crime during Covid. Folks are antsy, have had more idle and isolated time, etc. I think it’s possible to overthink this issue.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-05-13 06:00

    Mark, I share your fondness for Sioux Falls. I’ve always enjoyed opportunities to visit the Queen City of the East. Were I to consider relocating in South Dakota, Sioux Falls would be my first choice, given the greater job opportunities (though the Queen City of the West also fights for my affections and could easily get me to relocate to that remote outpost of Hills and goodness if the right job arose).

    I won’t contend that Sioux Falls suffers from an unlivable level of crime and violence. I don’t think my ex-pat guest columnist does, either. But we all have experiences in different cities, and I’m intrigued by the sense this writer has gotten through experience of the deep cultural vibes of Sioux Falls and the Michigan city compared here.

  6. Arlo Blundt 2021-05-13 14:49

    Well…Whether or not a fella commits crime has a lot to do with how much and how often a fella consumes large amounts of alcohol or street drugs. So take alcohol and street drugs out of the equation, and we don’t have much violent crime. Most violent crime is committed against family members or close acquaintances.

  7. Porter Lansing 2021-05-13 16:15

    In short …
    Sioux Falls is more like Denver than Watertown is like Sioux Falls.

    If for some reason I had to move back to SD, SF would be my third choice, after Vermillion or Spearfish.

  8. Joe 2021-05-13 22:34

    I’m guessing the author is referencing Dearborn MI. With all due respect to him. there’s not much to connect Sioux Falls and Dearborn aside from a similar population size.

    Not to knock SD’s universities but Dearborn has a branch of the University of Michigan. And the main “public Ivy” campus is not far away. Wayne State is even closer. Smart kids in greater Detroit have world-class, affordable education options kids in SD can only dream of.

    Detroit proper has had its rough patches but the suburban ring is still one of the wealthier parts of the US. Dearborn is a part of that. Sioux Falls has its own, very real charms and attractions but it simply doesn’t have the human and financial capital of a major metro area.

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