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Immigration Is Hot Topic in Iowa, Overlooked by Presidential Campaigns

November 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Hispanics may be only 5 percent of Iowa's population, but that number represents a boom of 110 percent in 10 years, driven partly by the meat industry jobs. While immigration was a big topic for the Republican caucuses, Iowa Public Television's Paul Yeager reports on why the presidential candidates have been quiet on the issue.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, Immigration may not be a front-burner issue for the presidential candidates right now, but it is something many voters care about in the swing state of Iowa.

Paul Yeager of Iowa Public Television reports on how demographic shifts in his state are changing the political landscape.

His story is part of our new collaboration with public media partners across the country from areas that will likely determine the outcome of the election in a series we call Battleground Dispatches.

PAUL YEAGER, Iowa Public Television: Last fall, in the run-up to the Republican caucuses, illegal immigration was a hot topic on the campaign trail in Iowa.

MITT ROMNEY (R): If you hire someone who is illegally, we’re going to sanction you, just like we do if you don’t pay your taxes.

PAUL YEAGER: But this fall, despite numerous appearances by President Obama and Mitt Romney, the issue is almost never mentioned in this key battleground state.

It’s surprising, because although Latinos make up only 5 percent of Iowa’s population, their numbers have increased by 110 percent over the last 10 years. Perhaps nowhere is that growth more evident than right here.

Perry, Iowa, has a population of about 8,000 people. It’s located north and west of Des Moines, and it was founded by German immigrants who worked on the railroad. But over the last 30 years, the population has changed. Immigrants have come from Central and South America looking for work, and they’re finding it at the local meatpacking plant.

Jay Pattee owns Ben’s Five and Dime store and serves as the town’s mayor. He’s watched as nearly 3,000 Latino immigrants arrived in Perry, many to work at the Tyson pork processing plant.

MAYOR JAY PATTEE,Perry, Iowa: Perry was a pretty ivory place in 1980, when we moved here. And when it started to change, I think some people were just plain afraid of the change. I don’t know. It’s the fear of the unexpected, I guess.

PAUL YEAGER: Does that exist at all today?

JAY PATTEE: Maybe so. I would say it’s a lot less evident than what it was before.

PAUL YEAGER: According to the mayor, one reason the town has adjusted so well is that newcomers were never isolated in separate neighborhoods or schools.

Pattee, a conservative Democrat, thinks that has made folks more moderate on the immigration issue and less tolerant of extremist language used by some candidates.

JAY PATTEE: Michele Bachmann, when she was running for the nomination on the Republican side, she came to Perry. And I think the purpose was to build up support for her really tough stance on immigration.

And I think she was disappointed in what she had hoped to get out of her visit here.

PAUL YEAGER: Even Philip Stone, a retired schoolteacher, city councilman and lifelong Republican, was disturbed by the tone he heard during the caucuses, especially when candidates proposed deporting illegal immigrants.

PHILIP STONE, Perry city councilman: I don’t think we can send them back. I mean, we’re just being realistic. They’re not — we’re not in a position to upend families in the neighborhood of eight million, 10 million people, and send them back.

PAUL YEAGER: And he worries that anti-immigrant rhetoric is turning off a group of potential voters.

PHILIP STONE: As a Republican, I think that there are a lot of opportunities to work into the Latino communities and bring those people in. It’s unfortunate that it’s such a hot issue with some people. That perhaps prevents it a little bit.

PAUL YEAGER: Are they welcome?

PHILIP STONE: I’m sure they would be. Again, their perception may be that the Republican Party is not theirs, for a variety of reasons.

PAUL YEAGER: Iowa has seen its share of deportations of illegal workers, most notably in huge meatpacking raids in Postville and Marshalltown four and six years ago. But those factories have since been closed or taken over.

Tyson Foods is now one of the largest meat processors in the state, and uses a system called E-Verify to check the legal status of workers. It’s a system operated by the Department of Homeland Security, and is used on a voluntary basis across the country.

Mitt Romney has said he would like to see more states require that businesses use it.

Farmer and Republican State Representative Julian Garrett sponsored a bill that would do just than in Iowa.

JULIAN GARRETT, R-Iowa state representative: It’s a very simple system. It isn’t costly to the business.

With all of the controversy and all the problems we have had at the border and all of that, it just struck me like, this is so simple and efficient and economical and I think would have a huge impact on the problem. It’s just common sense to me that that is the approach to take.

PAUL YEAGER: Garrett’s bill failed in the statehouse earlier this year, but he’s hoping to try again next session.

JULIAN GARRETT: Legitimate businesses see their competitors who are hiring illegals and paying them substandard wages.

And that puts your honest person at a competitive disadvantage, because they’re paying higher wages. So, their cost of business is higher than their competitive that is not complying with the law.

So, that’s not fair to them. In fact, it pressures them, puts them under pressure to violate the law themselves in order to stay in business and to compete.

PAUL YEAGER: Tony Sweet, a manager at the Perry plant, likes the E-Verify system, but thinks, to really solve the problem, more must be done at the border.

TONY SWEET, manager: One of the issues that has come up frequently is, do we need more immigration laws? And my opinion is, we don’t. I think we have got plenty of laws on the books we need.

But I think we need to do a better job enforcing the laws that we have.

One of the things that really concerns me is the fact that our borders aren’t secure, that we have a rather casual way for people to come and go as they please.

PAUL YEAGER: High school teacher Eddie Diaz, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, worries the political rhetoric of the election cycle has had a corrosive effect.

EDDIE DIAZ, Iowa teacher: Demonizing people isn’t going to help. It’s just going to make it a challenge that’s going to go on for generations.

PAUL YEAGER: Diaz supports President Obama, even though he didn’t deliver on his promise of comprehensive immigration reform. He says he can’t vote for Romney because he doesn’t know where he stands.

EDDIE DIAZ: On immigration, as well as other issues, he’s shifted his positions. And it’s hard for me to nail down exactly what he believes.

The DREAM Act, for example, he’s gone back and forth. This last debate, he said he wouldn’t veto it, whereas, previous debates, he said he would veto it and he’s against it.

And there’s a lot of things that I think I can go towards the middle as far as immigration reform. The DREAM Act is not really one of those things.

PAUL YEAGER: Although Mr. Obama supports a pathway to citizenship for young people brought to this country by undocumented parents, he didn’t get a bill through Congress.

Instead, last June, he issued an executive order to delay deportation for those who qualify for up to two years.

Twenty-four-year-old Ana Araica is applying for that deferment right now. She came to this country from Nicaragua nine years ago and has three young children.

ANA ARAICA, undocumented immigrant: I want to become legal because of my kids, because I want to be able to provide for them.

I’m a single mom. And I want to be able to earn my money, and I want to be able to take care of my children.

PAUL YEAGER: Araica is getting help with her application from Sandra Sanchez with the Iowa American Friends Service Network. Sanchez says programs that encourage young immigrants to become legal citizens should be welcomed by Iowans.

SANDRA SANCHEZ, American Friends Service Network: We are a state that is aging, and it is aging very rapidly. Our baby boomers are retiring. And we’re not having young people staying here, other than immigrants.

We need to understand that immigration in Iowa is actually an asset and that we could tap into that asset and manage it in such a way that we can grow.

PAUL YEAGER: With polls in Iowa showing President Obama with a thin but steady lead, it’s likely that both candidates will try to tap into that growing number of Latino voters.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, you can watch a video profile of the town of Perry, Iowa. That’s on our Politics page.