“America is changing. It’s better to be prepared than be in denial. At least you should look at the trends to see, if this does happen, how do you embrace this and make it an opportunity rather than create laws that stop it from happening,” says Mitchell Silver, chief planning and economic development officer for the city of Raleigh and president of the American Planning Association.
A POWERFUL TRANSITION
On first impression, it doesn’t look like anything has changed in Iowa. White residents are still as common as corn here, accounting for 91 percent of the state’s slightly more than 3 million people, according to the 2010 census. Statewide, Hispanics still represent only 1 in 20 residents. But over the last decade, Iowa’s white population actually contracted by 1 percentage point, while its Hispanic population increased by 2.3 percentage points.
That’s been enough to alter the look not only of Des Moines, the state capital, but even small towns, such as Marshalltown, population 27,552, and even smaller Postville. The ensuing changes have resulted in inevitable collisions—the growing pains of any community forced to adapt to change and integration.
The Hispanic share of Marshalltown’s population has almost doubled over the past 10 years to 24 percent. More than 42 businesses here are Hispanic-owned. For the past two decades, Hispanics have been drawn to Marshalltown by jobs in meat-processing and -packing plants, farms, and dairies. In 2006, the community found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight when Immigration and Customs Enforcement federal agents raided a Swift & Co. meat-packing plant here and arrested nearly 100 of its workers as undocumented workers.
From that wrenching experience, it would be easy to assume that the presence of Hispanics and other minorities has brought nothing but tension. The reality is more complex.
The first wave of immigrants to Marshalltown was men who arrived on their own during the late 1980s and early 1990s to work in the meat plants. The arrival of significant numbers of unattached men, who looked different and spoke differently than the longtime residents, generated predictable tension. This eventually gave way by around the turn of the century to the arrival of entire families—not just from Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Latin America, but Hispanic families from other states. By now, many of Marshalltown’s Hispanics say they have lived in the state for more than a decade.
This influx has been felt most profoundly in the churches and the schools. Sister Christine Feagan directs the Catholic Church’s Hispanic ministry in Marshalltown’s St. Mary’s Parish. The very existence of her job is a testament to change, but she can measure it even more precisely. “I use the parish as a gauge,” she says. “When I arrived in 1999, there was one Mass in Spanish and three in English. Now, we have three Masses in Spanish, and 70 percent of the parish is Hispanic.”
In the schools, the transition is almost as powerful. Twenty years ago, 98 percent of Marshalltown Community School District students were white. Minorities now represent 54 percent of the total enrollment, with Hispanics alone (43 percent) nearly equaling whites (46 percent). Last year, Marshalltown High School’s prom king and queen were Hispanic.
As Hispanic students, many of them immigrants, began to flood into the school district at the beginning of the decade, the English as a Second Language program became a lightning rod for controversy. In 1992, 75 students were classified as English Language Learners. Now 1,735 students speak one of 30 languages besides English, and the district has the third-largest population of ELL students in the state.
The 2006 Swift raid added another source of conflict: Many students had to cope with the arrest, detention, and deportation of their parents. As the raid heightened tensions in the community, conflict spilled over into school hallways.
Salvador Lara, a 25-year-old born in Mexico, graduated from Marshalltown High School in 2006. He remembers edginess between whites and Latinos, but he says it gradually dissipated. He was part of the group Building Bridges, which was founded to improve communication among ethnic groups.
Conflict, he says, has eased in part because “Hispanics no longer have the worst jobs or the poorest houses. It demonstrates that we’re reaching a level that’s helping us be more accepted. We’ve contradicted a lot of stereotypes about Hispanics.”
The town itself appears to have undergone an evolution similar to the one Lara describes in the schools. “When the Swift raid happened, it really woke up our town. For the first time, it really humanized the immigration issue. And people realized the economic impact it would have in Marshalltown. What if the entire Latino community pulled out of here? Schools would have closed, businesses would have closed,” says Joa LaVille, youth services director for the Marshalltown Public Library.