Public Safety & Justice

Strangers on the Prairie

Iowa's immigrant-friendly policies aren't wildly popular among its residents. But the state has little choice. It needs people.
by | January 2002
 

Last year, as Iowa was erupting in controversy over a proposal to open the state to more foreign immigration, Mayor Floyd Harthun of Marshalltown quietly left home and traveled to Villachuato, a small community in the Michoacan Province of central Mexico.

Harthun had learned from Mark Grey, an anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa, that many of Marshalltown's Latino immigrants originally came from Villachuato. They account for about half of the 1,900 employees at the largest employer in Marshalltown, a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant that also generates 1,200 additional jobs at related companies. Mexicans also have opened several new businesses in town, and their children have propped up sagging enrollment in Marshalltown schools. Not surprisingly, Mayor Harthun was eager to learn more about them--in part, because he wanted them to stay. "I was being self-serving," he admits. "We need people."

When Harthun reached Villachuato, several hours' drive west of Mexico City, he was surprised to discover just how much the people there need Marshalltown as well. "About a third of the license plates were from Marshall County," he recalls. He learned that Villachuatans who live in Marshalltown sent money to provide electricity and underground water in their native town, helped finance road-paving projects and restored the town church and town plaza. As Harthun visited with his hosts, he also started to understand something else: The villagers in Mexico are in close contact with their friends and family members in Iowa. "If a job opens up in Marshalltown," he says, "the people in Villachuato know about it even before I do."

Marshalltown (population 29,000) and Villachuato (about 15,000) are examples of what Grey calls "unofficial sister cities"--pairs of communities in Iowa and Mexico whose economies have become interdependent as a result of the flow of workers across the border. As Harthun learned, these relationships have developed out of view of the mainstream media and established institutions, following a logic rarely acknowledged in today's polarized debates over immigration. And they show that while Americans often view immigration as an act of graciousness on our part, for many communities, it is becoming an economic development strategy as well, possibly making the difference between prosperity and economic decline. It's also a challenge, however--one that is forcing more mayors like Harthun to confront issues of race, ethnicity and class that have passed their communities by in earlier periods.

More and more small-city mayors may find themselves grappling with such issues in the years ahead. While immigration traditionally has been a big-city issue, immigrants are starting to disperse much more widely across the country than in the past. The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, says one in 14 counties in the United States saw its foreign-born population increase by more than 50 percent in the 1990s. What's more, the economic forces driving this new pattern of immigration are likely to build. Consider: After increasing by almost 27 million people between 1980 and 2000, the number of native-born working Americans in their prime years (25 to 54) will not grow at all in the next two decades. "We'll be living in a world where the working age, nonimmigrant population slows or turns negative," predicts David Ellwood, an economist at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "We're going to have to think very hard about whether immigration should be used to fill the gap."

For Iowa and some other parts of the Midwest, another problem compounds the demographic challenge: Not only are their current work forces aging, they are losing young people. About 60 percent of Iowa's college students leave the state after they graduate. As a result, Iowa employers received fewer than two applications last year for every new job opening--far below the minimum 4-to-1 ratio recommended by corporate site-selection consultants. In Marshalltown, employers received on average fewer than one application per job opening, and one-third of all employers said in a survey that it is "almost impossible" to find qualified employees. The problem will soon get worse: In a pattern common to many of the city's employers, one major company said 40 percent of its salaried employees and 50 percent of its hourly workers will be eligible to retire by 2005.

Of course, the recession has eased tightness in labor markets for the moment. And American attitudes toward immigration are in flux in wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But labor shortages and resulting pressure for higher immigration are sure to return when the economy revives. "In the state of Iowa today, economic development is about attracting people," says Ken Anderson, president of the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce. "It is critical that we recruit people."

But how? As much as some local officials may want to attract immigrants, the politics can be rough and tumble. Although Iowa remains 94 percent white, the state's immigrant population has more than doubled in the past decade, and for some Iowans, the experience has left a bitter taste. Some communities were caught unprepared to house or serve large numbers of non-English-speaking people. Several times in recent years, the legislature has pondered resolutions that would declare English the state's official language. In February 2001, a Des Moines Register poll showed that 54 percent of all Iowans oppose increasing immigration.

In late 2000, Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack, who has said Iowa must encourage immigration to avoid economic decline, named Marshalltown and two other cities--Mason City and Fort Dodge--as "model communities" that would explore ways to attract immigrants to Iowa. Each city received $50,000 to assess its labor-force needs and develop plans to recruit immigrants. Although it seemed a modest step--Vilsack shelved a far bolder proposal by a strategic planning council to ask Congress to declare Iowa an "immigration enterprise zone" exempt from federal immigration quotas--the idea set off a political brawl.

Project USA, a New York-based anti-immigration group, organized petition drives against the model cities program. In Mason City, the hometown of Meredith Willson, who wrote the Broadway show "The Music Man," the group rolled out a "truthmobile"--a truck-towed billboard that said, "In Your 20s? Immigration will double the U.S. population in your lifetime." At one city council meeting, a local anti- immigration group insisted on reading a 15-minute statement complaining that the governor wanted to turn Iowa into another California. "We've been in the middle of a firestorm," says Lori Henry, a city council member who supported the governor. Her reelection campaign last November turned into a referendum of sorts on the issue; she won with 51 percent of the vote against an opponent whose slogan was "Vote American."

Immigration supporters have tried to defuse emotions by keeping the debate focused on economic development, not immigration. "We're talking about the work force," says James Patton, an Iowa State University extension director who helped organize the effort in Fort Dodge. "That's less emotional." In Fort Dodge, project leaders said immigration would be just one of five strategies for increasing the local work force--behind coaxing more senior citizens to work, helping people with disabilities find jobs, persuading more students to remain in town and enticing families who have left to return. And the community turned down the governor when he wanted to come to town to announce that it would be one of his model cities. "We were adamant that we were not going to divide this community," says Randy Kuhlman, an administrator at Trinity Health Systems, the local hospital.

All three model communities also rebuffed Governor Vilsack by refusing to try to recruit new immigrants. Instead, they opted for a more passive approach, looking for ways to be more receptive to immigrants once they arrive--by having bilingual staff at important institutions, making English language courses available, and establishing "welcoming centers" to help newly arrived people get established. Even the governor backed down on the question of recruiting immigrants. "People are going to come to this state right now regardless of what we do," he said last July. "The question is whether they'll be welcome."

Iowans admit that part of their uneasiness reflects a fear of losing the small-town ambiance that Meredith Willson celebrated in "The Music Man." People in Marshalltown like living in a place where "people say 'hello' when they pass you in the street," explains City Administrator Edward Geick. That sense of comfort and easy familiarity seemed at risk when Mexicans first started moving into town in large numbers, Geick concedes. He insists it now is returning. Others aren't so sure. Language differences, in particular, are a sore point. In Marshalltown, many residents find it unsettling when they hear a conversation they can't understand, or see signs they can't read. "We don't need diversity, we need unity," says Biff Dysart, who publishes a Sunday magazine supplement for the Marshalltown newspaper. "And that means everybody reading from the same page and speaking the same language."

Opposition to immigration also reflects a more gritty, pocketbook concern: There is a widespread belief that increased immigration will drive down wages. "Immigration has a long history of turning jobs into--or keeping them as--ones nobody but a desperate foreign worker would be willing to accept," says Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, an immigration-restriction group based in Virginia. Without a ready supply of low-wage labor, Beck maintains, employers would have to pay higher wages, and that would attract enough new workers to make any labor shortage disappear.

That may be correct as a general theory, but business leaders say it bears little connection to the reality in Iowa today. "We are way past trying to keep wages down," says Bill Scott, general manager of the Des Moines Marriott Hotel. "We're just trying to find employees." The Marriott, which pays its kitchen and housekeeping employees $8.93 an hour on average, is so hard-pressed for employees that it has developed special programs to hire senior citizens and people with disabilities, as well as immigrants, he says. Even with the national economic slowdown, unemployment was still just 3.4 percent in Iowa as of October. Scott says the unemployment rate would have to rise to the 8- to 10-percent range before he would consider trying to cut wages.

Still, Iowa's recent history offers what many see as proof that immigration really does reduce wages. In the 1960s, the Iowa meatpacking industry was largely unionized, and its employees were mostly white and middle class. In the 1970s and '80s, though, the industry restructured itself, vastly increasing output by adopting rigid assembly-line techniques, simplifying jobs to the point that workers with almost no skills could do them, and slashing wages. Unions fought back, but ultimately lost. All of this happened at about the time immigration picked up, first with an influx of Southeast Asians, followed later by Bosnians and Mexicans. All these groups filled many jobs at meatpacking plants.

Today, many white workers simply aren't interested in meatpacking jobs. The work is odious and grueling; workers at the Swift plant in Marshalltown, to cite one example, kill, eviscerate, butcher and package 15,000 hogs a day. It's also dangerous work; meatpacking has, by far, the highest injury rate of any industry in Iowa. It's not clear that many native-born Iowans would take these jobs even at a much higher wage than they currently pay.

As meatpacking has become identified with immigrant labor, economic development issues have become intertwined with questions of race and ethnicity, as the Iowa Cattlemen's Association learned last year. At about the same time Vilsack was promoting his model communities project, the cattlemen were trying to find a site for a new beef packing plant. Given the bitter history of the meatpacking business, it didn't take long for people to suspect the two issues were linked. "People fear there is a hidden agenda--that the state wants to create more low-wage jobs and that's why it wants to bring in immigrants," says David Hale, a city council member in Fort Dodge.

Joel Brinkmeyer, executive vice president of the cattlemen's association believes it is native Iowans who have the hidden agenda. A number of communities that say they don't want the new plant because they don't want a low-wage employer ignore the fact that the average meatpacking worker today earns between $23,000 and $25,000 a year, about the average income for Iowans, Brinkmeyer notes. "A lot of these communities don't want change," he says. "They perceive that a lot of the employees of a meatpacking plant wouldn't be the Caucasian people they traditionally have had in their communities."

Marshalltown is the only one of Iowa's three model communities that has a meatpacking plant of its own, and the only one already containing a sizeable immigrant population. Perhaps it isn't surprising, then, that Mayor Harthun has a different perspective on the industry. Meatpacking jobs, he says, have distinct advantages to Mexicans that they don't have to long-time Iowans. To native Iowans, for instance, a high turnover rate (80 percent a year in some plants) reflects just how unpleasant the jobs are. But when Mexicans first started coming to the Marshalltown area, it was a distinct advantage because it meant they could quit at almost any time and be virtually assured of getting rehired later. This enabled some of them to go home for the town's festival each year and go right back to the plant on their return. "They fit the jobs into the migratory cycle," Harthun says.

Their experience with the immigrant situation leads Harthun and other city officials in Marshalltown to conclude that government should try to accommodate the city's new residents rather than demanding that they quickly assimilate. Police Chief Lon Walker, for instance, worries that Marshalltown's Villachuatans don't cooperate with the police--a concern that affects everything from enforcing parking rules to cracking down on Mexican methamphetamine dealers who sometimes hide out in the Latino community. But after traveling with the mayor to Villachuato, Walker said he understood the problem more clearly: "There is no trust between police and people" in their region of Mexico, he explains. To build trust, Walker is preparing a videotape for newly arrived immigrants that will, among other things, assure them that the local police don't care about their immigration status, and don't accept bribes.

The tape also will spell out local ordinances that differ from laws and norms in Mexico. In Marshalltown, for instance, drivers have to have licenses and insurance, cars must be registered, and while it is acceptable in Villachuato to park in your front yard or drink beer in a public park, that isn't allowed in Iowa. "It's all right to set standards," says Harthun. "It shows that you value people."

Not every community in Iowa sees Marshalltown as a place to emulate. To some, the surge in Marshalltown's Hispanic population--from just 248 in 1990 to more than 3,200 in 2000, or 12.6 percent of the population--is just the sort of "mass migration" they want to avoid. And Marshalltown's immigrants aren't the kind of well-educated, skilled workers Vilsack and leaders in the other two model cities say they want.

From an economic development standpoint, however, there are advantages to the kind of large-scale immigration Marshalltown has experienced: Ultimately, it may bring more, not less, stability. Fort Dodge has a smattering of highly trained foreign-born scientists, many of them employed by Fort Dodge Animal Health, which makes pharmaceutical products for animals. But as a tiny minority, they have less to tie them to the community: They lack grocery stores and restaurants that sell the foods they like, and they have few opportunities to socialize with people like themselves. In Marshalltown, by contrast, there are enough Latinos to support stores and restaurants that cater to their tastes. A Catholic church offers services in Spanish. And, as Mayor Harthun learned when he visited Villachuato, Marshalltown's Latinos have a web of community contacts that connect them to each other and to their Mexican roots.

Marshalltown may not wind up doing so poorly when it comes to attracting highly skilled workers either. Martha Garcia, of the Iowa State University extension service, estimates that 20 percent of the Latinos working at the Swift meatpacking plant have skills and training that would qualify them for better jobs if they could get recognition in this country for academic degrees and professional certification they earned in Mexico, and if they could overcome language barriers.

In the long run, Marshalltown hopes that it will have another source of skilled workers in the Latinos now growing up there who will be fluent in English and educated entirely in Iowa schools. Hispanic children now account for 25 percent of the school system's 5,000 students. Superintendent Richard Doyle says meeting their needs--some arrive not only unable to speak English but illiterate in Spanish as well--has been a challenge. He estimates that serving this population probably adds about $150,000 a year to school costs. But he also points out that because the newcomers keep school enrollment up, they generate even more state education aid.

More important, says Mayor Harthun, the Latino children are developing a loyalty to Marshalltown. In Villachuato, he says, they would get at most a third-grade education, delivered by a roving teacher who comes to town three days a week. In Marshalltown, all of them get much more--and they like it. The mayor recalls asking one Latino who lived in Marshalltown if he wanted to return to Mexico. "He said he'd go back, but his children won't," Harthun says. "The next generation will stay here."

There is a sad side to that story, however: Marshalltown's gain may be Villachuato's loss. Mark Grey, the anthropologist, says the sister- city relationship between Marshalltown and Villachuato, while mutually beneficial today, isn't necessarily stable. "In the long term, Villachuato may become another abandoned community," Grey says. "Another ghost town in the Mexican heartland."

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