Zamora and her husband were undocumented when they worked at the Agriprocessors plant and were detained in the raid. Her husband was deported to Guatemala.
A week after the raid, Sliwa went to Postville to volunteer at St. Bridget’s Church, which was serving as a sanctuary to immigrants and their families. Someone asked her to visit a mother who needed assistance. And so, “gracias a Dios,” Sliwa says in Spanish, she met Zamora. Today, Zamora’s daughters, one born in Guatemala and one in Iowa, call her “Grandma.”
Zamora applied for, and was eventually able to obtain, legal status thanks to a U visa, for immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes while in the United States. She was then able to petition for legal status for her husband—allowing him to return to Postville from Guatemala—and for her older daughter.
Sliwa sees demographic change in Iowa as an inevitability. She traces the migrations evident in the heartland today to longtime U.S. policies, such as intervention in Central American civil wars in the 1980s. “My government, I believe, has created the situation from which Rosa came looking for something better for her family,” Sliwa says. “This immigrant story is the story of all of us, and together we are a stronger country.”
AN ENDURING GULF
The relationship between Zamora and Sliwa offers a hopeful vision of how the U.S. may respond as diversity spreads into new places. The experience of Prince William County, Va., shows the opportunity for strain.
The county has been a destination for immigrants since the 1980s, when many fleeing civil wars in Central America settled in the Washington area. Tensions always existed, according to some residents, but rekindled when the economic boom of the 1990s brought another wave of immigrants attracted by the availability of jobs and the low cost of living.
Tension rose again after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and heightened further when housing prices collapsed in 2007 and the overall economy soon followed. Rising unemployment rates and foreclosures swept aside whatever grudging tolerance residents had developed for the new arrivals.
The county was thrust into the center of the national immigration debate in 2007, when its Republican-majority County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that allowed police to ask about the immigration status of anyone they suspected to be undocumented.
The bitter debate over the measure produced tensions, and Hispanics left en masse for neighboring counties. A University of Virginia study estimated that between 2,000 and 6,000 people packed up. Houses and apartments were abandoned, the local economy slowed, and some small-business owners were forced to shut down entirely. (Even so, the Hispanic population in Prince William grew from 8 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2010.)
Unusual at the time, the ordinance now has echoes elsewhere. Over the past several years, Republican-controlled legislatures in several states have approved largely overlapping bills to severely toughen enforcement of laws targeting illegal immigrants. In Arizona, which set the template with its SB 1070 legislation, tension over the border has inflamed the issue. But many of the states that followed suit are those that have experienced the most rapid (and unprecedented) growth in their Hispanic populations, like Alabama and South Carolina.
As in many of these states, the push against illegal immigration in Prince William County drew support from an array of concerns that extended well beyond any fear of economic competition from the new arrivals. The effort also drew on anxieties about the changing face of the student body in the public schools, the offering of English as a Second Language courses, and the availability of social services for immigrants—services that undocumented immigrants cannot access, but legal residents and citizens can. Fear of crime also fueled the move, although a University of Virginia study found that fewer than 2 percent of those arrested in the county in 2008 (after the law was implemented) were undocumented immigrants. Finally, there was the political dimension: The president-at-large of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, Republican Corey Stewart, ran for reelection on a promise to combat undocumented immigration.
When Prince William’s economy began to feel the effects of the anti-immigrant ordinance, pressure grew to amend it. That, combined with the potential for civil-rights violations and racial profiling as well as the high cost of implementing the law and defending it in court, led the board to narrow the ordinance in 2008 to apply only to those who had already been detained. But today, Stewart says flatly that the law “was not a mistake.”
“There were some initial impacts on some retail, especially restaurants in areas where there was concentration of illegal immigrants,” he admits. “However, the economy has exceeded all expectations in economic growth. The Latino population has not gone down. It has stabilized, with more young families with children and fewer of the single men that were illegal immigrants. It has been a very good policy.”