Immigration Is An Issue, Even In Small-Town Iowa

Immigration an issue, even in small-town Iowa

Hispanics reviving fading economies as state's migrant debate heats up before vote

The Dallas Morning News
02:41 PM CST on Sunday, December 30, 2007

PERRY, Iowa The cornfields of Iowa are thousands of miles from the Mexican border.

About 10 years ago, the Hispanic population in Perry, Iowa, could hardly be measured. Now, Hispanics make up 25 percent of the town.

But just like areas in the Southwest, some small places can legitimately be called Little Mexico. Immigrants have transformed Perry, a charming Midwestern town of 8,000 people, from a fading outpost to a bustling hamlet.

“The Latino population has been the difference between thriving and dying,” said Kent Newman, who produced a documentary about the effects of immigration on Perry called A Little Salsa On The Prairie. “Many of the people here have put aside their fear about immigration and it has worked.”

But not all Iowa residents are as accepting as those in Perry and illegal immigration has riled even the most tolerant of Hawkeyes. After years of percolating here, the issue is reaching a zenith just as Iowans prepare to kick off the voting for presidential nominees with their caucuses. As it is elsewhere, immigration is a top concern for voters here, particularly Republicans.

Iowa's feelings on immigration, then, could reverberate across the country, as the state sends some candidates out with momentum for the rest of the primary season and possibly sends others home.

Voters here are grappling with social, economic and cultural changes similar to those Texas has faced for decades. Iowa is still 95 percent white, but Hispanics are reshaping small towns that just a few years ago had mostly Nordic influences.

“There are people who feel like crime is up, Hispanic people don't carry [car] insurance and don't take care of their homes,” said Don Stehr, co-chairman of the Crawford County Democratic Party. “It's been a hardship on the community, particularly for those who don't have health care insurance and don't speak English.”

Estimates put the illegal immigrant population in Iowa at 55,000, in addition to about 130,000 legal immigrants. Most work in the meat and poultry industry. In some cases, children of illegal immigrants compose half the local school districts.

Debates about health care resources are growing, too. And as in Texas, some residents and political leaders are trying to tackle the issue. In some areas, for instance, police have been empowered to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand proof of citizenship.

At the same time, some groups and church organizations are helping the new residents, legal or illegal, assimilate into the culture.

Almost everyone is waiting for the federal government to develop a comprehensive immigration solution. But people on both sides of the issue seem skeptical of the rhetoric coming from the GOP candidates and note that the Democratic contenders aren't talking about immigration at all.

“Everyone is frustrated by the lack of action,” Mr. Newman said. “In an election year, nothing is going to happen.”

Salsa meets chowder

There was a time when salsa and Tex-Mex were as foreign to Iowans as sweet corn chowder and cattleman's stew were to Mexicans.

Meat and poultry processing plants provided jobs, good wages and benefits to workers. In the 1980s, though, plants began to close, and after a few years, some such as the old Oscar Meyer facility in Perry reopened under new owners.

Flyers were distributed south of the border urging residents to come north for jobs and opportunity. It was reminiscent of the job advertisements in the early part of the century that led to the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities like Chicago and Detroit.

About 10 years ago, the Hispanic population in Perry hardly measured. Now, it's 25 percent of the town.

On Second Street, the city's quaint commercial district, there are at least six Hispanic-owned shops or restaurants.

Immigration was so foreign to these Iowans that they sent a delegation to Mexico to study the culture and get insight on why Mexicans were relocating so far north.

“The people in Perry accept you for what you are,” said Steve Parnell, a guitar shop owner who took the trip to Mexico and has two Hispanic neighbors. “We have immigration without the tension.”

Liliana Carbajal migrated to Perry with her family in 1996 from Mexico City. She and her brother now operate an antique shop in the center of town.

“It's a peaceful, wonderful kind of place,” she said as a tourist from Denver browsed in her store. “Everyone has been so kind.”

Unavoidable clashes

There was plenty of turmoil, too. Some white residents fled Perry. And as the population settled, clashes were unavoidable.

Mona Kilborn recalled a horrible accident that shaped her feelings on immigration. In October, an illegal immigrant with a fake driver's license sped through two stop signs, crossed two lanes and broadsided a van carrying her family.

She escaped with broken ribs and cuts, but her mother died, her husband broke his back and her father suffered crushed ribs and abdominal injuries.

Ms. Kilborn said she has adopted four children from other countries and is not a racist. But she wants immigrants to abide by U.S. law or stay home.

“I do feel sorry for the families fleeing a totalitarian type of government,” she said. “Our forefathers were there more than 200 years ago. Our answer was to throw off the yoke and make this country a good place to live. I suggest these illegal aliens use their energy to do the same in their home country.”

Republican congressman Steve King, who represents parts of the state filled with new immigrants, said the nation doesn't have the stomach to develop a workable immigration policy.

Most candidates on the Republican side would enforce current immigration laws, build some sort of barrier along the border and develop an employee verification program.

Mr. King, who supports former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, wants more.

“If we don't have the will to send them home, then we can't have an immigration policy in any way,” he said.

Leland Searles, who teaches cultural anthropology at the Des Moines Area Community College, said Mr. King's comments and the remarks GOP presidential candidates have made about immigration don't reflect what's really occurring in Iowa.

“It's not the top issue on most people's minds,” he said. “I just don't think it rises to the highest levels of concern.”

But one way or another, the state is trying to prepare for the future. The population is aging and not reproducing at a high rate, so the state has a strategic plan, called Iowa 2010, that calls for efforts to add 310,000 residents.

Mr. Searles and others say that shows that Iowa needs immigrants.

“The people crossing the border are decent people coming here to work,” he said. “Iowa now has an uptick in its population, and that's because of immigrants.”

The combination of cultural changes and presidential politics can be explosive. Last week, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks new restrictions on immigration, hosted radio talk-show hosts from around the country to discuss the issue.

The group estimates that illegal immigration costs Iowa taxpayers $241 million a year.

“What's happening in Iowa is happening pretty much everywhere in the country,” said its president, Dan Stein.

Some Iowans rejected the group's views as hateful and said the state needs to chart its own course.

“Iowans are very savvy about this debate, and I have great confidence in our elected officials,” said Connie Ryan Terrell, director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. “Regardless of where we go with a policy, we need to remember that these are real human beings.”

Iowans get their chance to put their imprint on the issue this week. But then, the campaign circus will move on, and residents will still be trying to adjust to their new neighbors.

Jose Luis Comparan, associate pastor at a Catholic church in Waterloo, said it's a complex situation.

“The initial reaction was shock and wonderment,” said Father Comparan, who was raised in Brownsville and is now director of Hispanic ministry for the church. “Gradually, as people get to know each other, they began to blend.”



Increase in Hispanic population since 2000, to 114,700


Increase in public school enrollment


Increase in the number of Spanish speakers in public schools


Hispanic poverty rate, compared with the statewide rate of 10.9%


Median household income for Hispanics, compared with the statewide average of $43,609