Global Politics

Immigration a thorny issue in Iowa politics

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Many of the workers in Tyson Foods' hog processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, are undocumented immigrants. (Photo by Jason Margolis.)

Immigration reform has been a relatively minor issue in the ongoing Republican presidential primary.

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The issue still evokes strong passions, however, in many small Iowa towns that rely on immigrant labor at their meat packing plants. It’s an open secret: many of the workers are undocumented.

Storm Lake is a city of some 10,000 tucked in the corn fields of northwestern Iowa. The main employers are turkey and hog processing plants.

Storm Lake’s demographics run counter to the state. Iowa’s population is 91 percent white. In Storm Lake, public school district student body is just 22 percent white. The students are mostly Latinos, along with Southeast Asians and Africans. Many here, like Sara Huddleston, proudly say this mix is working.

“We call ourselves the conquistadores of this little town in the middle of nowhere,” said Huddleston, who was among the very first Latinos to come here from Mexico back in 1989.

Huddleston is living proof of the tolerance in Storm Lake: She was elected as Iowa’s first Latino city council member a decade ago.

Huddleston says when she moved here there were no ethnic grocery stores or Mexican restaurants. Today, she and her husband Matt say there are plenty to choose from. Juanita’s is their Mexican restaurant of choice.

“Everybody of different classes, different colors, different ages, they all go to Juanita’s. Everybody goes there,” she said.

Her husband agreed.

“You have immigrants from Africa, and Eastern Europe, you have the Latinos, native born Iowans, everybody is in there, pretty much at the same time," he explained.

This infusion of immigrants is also helping Storm Lake’s economy. Rural towns throughout the Midwest are dying. Storm Lake is not.

“Do we have some issues? Yes,” said Police Chief Mark Prosser. “But do we have growing school districts? Yes. Do we have an expanding medical center? Yes. Are we building new businesses? Yes. All because of our immigrant growth here.”

Ironically, the Congressman who represents Storm Lake is one of the most outspoken opponents of illegal immigration. Five years ago, Republican Steve King spoke in Congress about building a wall along the Mexican border and putting wire on top.

“We could also electrify this wire with the kind of current that wouldn’t kill somebody, but it would simply be a discouragement for them to be fooling around with it. We do that with livestock all the time," he said.

King is popular in western Iowa and even in Storm Lake. He’s been elected to Congress five times, winning his last race with two thirds of the vote.

David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, said there’s a disconnect between King’s popularity and his stance on immigration.

“I would argue that Steve King’s position puts him at great odds with many of the needs of many of his, ironically, supporters, like many of the rural agriculture leaders, many of the animal operations, the food and food processing industry,” said Swenson. “These are all major businesses in western Iowa. Probably many of the officers and the people in those firms are conservative and conservative leaning. Yet they know darn well that their businesses thrive because they have access to this cheap labor.”

Tyson Foods is one of the two major employers in Storm Lake. The company said it uses all the available tools provided by the government, and more, to verify the immigration status of the people it hires.

A Tyson spokesman said starting pay at the hog processing plant in Storm Lake is $11 an hour. That’s $4 above minimum wage. Tyson employees also get benefits like medical and dental insurance, paid vacations and a retirement savings plan.

That’s not enough to entice native Iowans to gut hogs though, Prosser said.

“It’s difficult work, hard work, repetitive work, monotonous work,” he explained. “Sometimes there’s the perception, and even criticism of shifting demographics that people categorized as ‘those people’ are taking jobs from the people who are native to this area, born and raised here, and that’s just not the case. That’s a myth. We don’t have lines at our packing plants trying to get jobs.”

King disagrees.

“When they say there are jobs that Americans won’t do, that’s not true, that’s a lie that’s been perpetrated against the American people," he said. “Every job in this country is being done by Americans, there’s no job they won’t do,” said King. “But you need to pay them what it’s worth. And I would like to see a tighter labor supply in this country, so that a person could get out of bed, go to work, and make enough money to pay for a modest house, educate their children, and plan for retirement. It’s used to be that way.”

Art Cullen grew up in Storm Lake and remembers the town's white picket fences during his youth. He’s the editor of the The Storm Lake Times. He’s no fan of Steve King nor his stance on immigration.

“I think he’s awful,” Cullen said.

But Cullen agrees with the man on at least one point. The meatpacking plants, run by Tyson and Sara Lee, aren’t paying enough. Cullen said while immigrants keep the economy going, the economic model isn’t bringing the town prosperity.

“When you’re living on $11 to $13 an hour, it’s really tough to get by. And it makes it tough for a newspaper to sell newspapers, when people can’t afford to buy a newspaper,” he said.

At Juanita’s, people say they like Storm Lake. They say they’re treated well and there are festivals celebrating different cultures.

Still, they want to see immigration reform. I asked what they thought of Congressman Steve King. The answer from a young woman named Sonia is what most everybody said.

“I haven’t paid too much attention.”

Sonia’s reaction was explained this way: Most Latino immigrants don’t trust politicians back home, so they don’t bother listening. Same goes for here too.

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