PERRY, Iowa—‘Make yourself at home!” invites the rustic sign on the road into this smalltown 40 miles northwest of Des Moines that tells big truths about immigration.
Perry was a railroad town founded in 1869 by a prospector headed to the California gold rush. The trains last stopped here in 1980. The well-paid union jobs at the meatpacking plant are gone, too. When Iowa Beef Packers took over the closed Oscar Mayer factory in 1989, it began recruiting immigrant labor, a tradition that the current owner, Tyson Foods, continues. The influx has transformed Perry, population 8,882, into a place where one in three residents is Latino. Many don’t speak English. Nearly half of the public schoolchildren and the majority of those eligible for free and discounted lunches are Hispanic.
Perry’s demographic changes have created obvious culture clashes, but they have also staved off the postindustrial death that struck so many Midwestern communities. The historic downtown, stretching about seven blocks from the post office to the empty storefront where Lisa’s Pub used to be, would be ghostly if not for the Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants and the Latino grocery store.
Here, as in other increasingly diverse parts of Iowa and of other traditionally white states, the national debate over immigration hits home. “I have some issues with illegal immigration,” said 63-year-old Brian Parker, wearing a Iowa State fleece behind the counter of the flower store that his dad opened in 1951. “On the other hand, if you put yourself in their shoes, things must be pretty dire for them to support themselves. They have a perilous journey. I just wish we had a way to legalize more people coming into this country, because it’s important that they become part of our society.”
A few blocks south, lifelong Perry resident Bill Coffin, 65, owns Shoppe of Oddities, a store stocked with junk or treasure, depending on your perspective. The sign on the door advertises “cold canned pop for 50 cents.” Coffin keeps his jeans up with bright green suspenders and offers a visitor a chair. “A lot of these people will work for anything,” he says, “which makes less of a marketplace for people who are citizens.”
It’s the sleeper issue of the 2012 election. Again and again, debate over illegal immigration has punctuated a campaign billed as a referendum on the economy. Acting like candidates for president of their local Minuteman chapter, the contenders for the GOP nomination have been competing to out-vigilante each other, rousing some ardent conservatives. But drill down into the polling, spend an afternoon in Perry, or consider Newt Gingrich’s surge in the polls even after he proposed an immigration policy that rivals tarred as “amnesty,” and it becomes clear that Republican voters’ views are more nuanced. What’s more, hard-line rhetoric in recent elections has alienated Latino voters at a time when their power to swing elections is only growing.
Antithetical to its past and potentially poisonous to its future, the GOP’s militant line risks long-term self-sabotage. “That rhetoric comes across as more than anti-illegal-immigration. It’s perceived as anti-immigration, which in turn is perceived by Hispanic voters as anti-Hispanic,” said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman. “When you’re getting a shrinking percentage of the fastest-growing share of the electorate, you don’t have to be a math major to figure out that’s not good, long-term, for the party.”
“For the most part, we are a city that very success-fully blends our cultures.”—Perry’s mayor, Jay Pattee
So why the hard line? For starters, previously homogeneous areas of the country are becoming more racially diverse at a time of deep anxiety about the economy. According to the 2010 census, Hispanics constitute more than 16 percent of the population, up from 12.5 percent in 2000 and 9 percent in 1990. For some recession-weary voters, angst over “foreigners” taking “American jobs” and sapping taxpayer-funded services stems from fears about their own financial future. “When the economy is booming and the economy nears levels of full employment, the intensity of the issue abates,” said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “In a bad economy, the issue intensifies. And you’ve always had that dynamic, whether it be with Italians or Irish and now largely with Mexicans or Central Americans.”
In addition, opposition to immigration reflects the Republican Party’s rightward lurch since President Obama’s 2008 victory and the rise of the tea party. The conservative activists driving the GOP agenda have a zero-tolerance policy, whether the issue is debt, taxes, or climate change. When it comes to illegal immigration, any response less than a full-throated declaration to seal the border is considered heresy. This is not the same party that produced Ronald Reagan, who granted amnesty to roughly 3 million illegal immigrants; twice elected George W. Bush, who urged Congress to give undocumented workers a legal route to citizenship; and nominated McCain, who cowrote similar legislation with liberal icon Edward Kennedy.
Sarah Huisenga contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the December 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.