LaVille is a member of Immigrant Allies, one of the groups that has sprouted in Iowa to promote understanding of how demographic change and its consequences affect everyone in the community. She represents what has probably become the dominant view: Whether citizens or immigrants, legal or undocumented, everyone contributes to the economy: with their labor; with the businesses they open and fund; with the taxes they pay on goods, property, and income; with the rent and utility bills they pay; with the schools they fill. It’s a lesson residents have been forced to learn, and one many of them are still digesting.
The reality is that without the population growth that the immigrants provided, Marshalltown faced “very definite population and economic decline,” says Mark A. Grey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa and the director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration.
Ken Anderson, president of the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “What has evolved over time is the realization of our indigenous population that they [Latinos] are in fact an economic force for everyday living,” he says. “And I think that it took us a while to roll that out.”
Yet complications endure. One is the complex immigration status of some residents. Lara, for instance, was born in Mexico and brought here illegally by his sister when he was 14. After he graduated from Marshalltown High, he pursued a community-college degree. But without papers, he was ineligible for scholarships and took a job in a restaurant instead. Later, he was charged with fifth-degree theft for taking a money bag he found in a parking lot. The fine was only $85, but under the Obama administration’s ICE Secure Communities program (which checks the immigration status of anyone booked into a local jail), Lara was turned over to immigration agents, detained, and nearly deported. Now out on bail, he awaits his first immigration-court hearing in Omaha, Neb., in June. Hundreds of Marshalltown residents have written letters of support.
Concern about illegal immigration remains a burr in Iowa—not as inflamed as in places like Arizona and Alabama, but persistent and raw in some quarters.
“You hear around that they need to go home, they need to learn English, they are illegals, we need an Arizona type of law,” says Larry Ginter, a 73-year-old retired farmer who was born and raised in the nearby town of Rhodes. “We just push back. Some of us understand why so many of the folks are up here. But some people don’t. I try to change minds, but sometimes it’s difficult.”
‘GRACIAS A DIOS’
These cross-pressures may be even more evident in nearby Postville. This tiny town was transformed by an influx of workers to its Agriprocessors meat-packing plant. The kosher plant attracted not just a community of Hasidic Jews (mostly from Brooklyn), but immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico as well as refugees from several countries. Incorporating all of those new faces wasn’t easy, but many here felt that the community was progressing on that path. It was also benefiting from the population growth. “I don’t think it would be idealistic to say we’d struck a balance, albeit fragile, that people had reached the point of being neighbors,” says Maryn Olson, a local resident.
Then in 2008, in a massive ICE raid, nearly 400 of the plant’s 1,000 workers were detained. Fully 306 were convicted, mostly for use of false identification documents. The raid broke open a hornet’s nest of violations at the plant, including animal abuse and violations of food-safety and labor laws, as well as a bank-fraud operation for which one owner is currently serving a 27-year prison sentence. (None of the owners was convicted on immigration charges, however.) Agriprocessors, which declared bankruptcy in 2008, was sold to new owners.
To replace the detained workers came Native Americans from reservations in Nebraska, recruits from homeless shelters in South Texas and other states, and people from Palau—who, as the result of a World War II-vintage treaty, can work in the United States without applying for a work visa.
Almost four years later, the community is recovering, many residents say, although some concede that the raid erased a measure of the progress made toward integration.
“We have the Palauans, the Somalians now, so the demographics have changed. But there’s more negative stigma attached to everything. So more single men instead of the families again … in a way we’re now backtracking,” says Jillian White-Hernández, 27, a high school teacher married to an undocumented immigrant.
Yet even the raid itself fostered a number of interethnic relationships that remain strong today. One of them can be seen in the living room of Guatemalan immigrant Rosa Zamora, where Priscilla Sliwa, a Quaker farm owner who lives near Decorah, Iowa, gets enthusiastic hugs of greeting from Zamora’s two daughters when she stops by for a visit.