Immigration wars squeeze Iowa town
By Sharon Cohen
September 1, 2007
Marshalltown, Iowa - Everyone knew they were there, doing dirty and
dangerous work in the massive meatpacking plant. They had come a long way -
more than 1,000 miles, from impoverished rural Mexico to the lush corn
country of the Midwest. Some folks looked the other way, others offered a
Then federal agents swept through, and the complicated bargain that
Marshalltown had made with illegal immigration was laid bare.
This town in the heart of middle America that has been transformed - even
rejuvenated - by immigration stands as a symbol of the agonizing
predicaments and pressures faced by many communities today.
"You're caught in the middle," says Mayor Gene Beach. "It's a matter of
enforcing the immigration laws while recognizing families are trying to
improve their life. How do you balance that? Someone is going to be gored."
In Marshalltown, that someone might be the meatpacking worker caught up in a
raid. Or the soccer coach who harbored a secret. Or the police detective
unable to solve the mystery of a Mexican man found dead on a busy road.
As the latest crop of presidential candidates crisscrosses Iowa, their
speeches blistering with catch phrases about the border, Marshalltown is
confronting the real-life consequences of a problem whose roots are far
"If you've got a leaky hot water heater, you've got to fix the leak before
the mess," Police Chief Lon Walker says. "We've got the leak at the border.
The mess is in Marshalltown."
Twice in the last nine months, federal agents have swooped down on illegal
immigrants at the town's largest employer, the giant Swift & Co. pork
processing plant. More than 100 people were arrested as part of a national
Francisco Vargas Acosta was among those apprehended last December. It was,
he says, the second time in a decade that he was arrested at the plant. The
first time, he was a teen, and returned to Mexico voluntarily. Now a
29-year-old father of two young sons, he is fighting deportation.
"I'm not a bad guy," Vargas says, sitting on a sofa in his living room
decorated with family photos and porcelain knickknacks. "I just want to stay
here for my kids. There's more of a future here. In Mexico, there's
Detective Dane Zuercher understands that desperation, he can even sympathize
a bit, but he says he can't condone breaking the law.
"We all want to better ourselves, we want better things for our kids. That's
great," he says. "But you can't commit a crime to make that happen. That's
where we have to draw the line."
Marshalltown finds itself squeezed by both sides in the immigration divide.
The town can't ignore the presence of illegal immigrants - whether it's the
raids or the cases that pile up on Zuercher's desk that involve people who
cross the border and buy or use stolen identities to land jobs.
And the town can't thrive without immigrants. The dramatic growth in the
Hispanic population - from a few hundred in 1990 to perhaps as much as 20%
of the 26,000 residents - has pumped new blood into this aging rural
"The leaders know darn well this town would really be suffering if not for
the influx of refugees," says Mark Grey, a University of Northern Iowa
professor and immigration expert. "They can wax nostalgic for the good old
days, but the good old days are gone."
Marshalltown still has the Ben Franklin on Main Street, the Fourth of July
celebrations, the cozy Maid-Rite diner, the grand 19th-century courthouse,
places and events that define small-town America.
But life on this Grant Wood landscape also has been shaped by new sights and
sounds: Bilingual signs in groceries and banks. Spanish-language Masses.
Students learning Spanish and English. A Latinos Unidos soccer league. An
annual Hispanic Heritage festival.
Not everyone likes these changes, but Marshalltown hasn't followed the path
of communities that have tried to punish landlords or businesses that associ
ate with illegal immigrants.
It has, instead, tried to learn why people come here. Several times, town
leaders have signed on to join Grey, the professor, to travel to
Villachuato, a dusty, poor farming village in Mexico that is the source of
many of Marshalltown's immigrants.
"I wanted them to understand the economic conditions that drive people out
of Mexico," says Grey, director of the Iowa Center for Immigration
Leadership and Integration.
Houses with dirt floors (and without electricity), unpaved roads and people
desperate for work all provided compelling evidence. But the trip also
revealed something else to Walker, the police chief, as he questioned
"I said, 'How many of you have been to Marshalltown?' All the hands went
up," he says. "'How many of you did it legally?' All the hands went down."
No one knows how many immigrants are here illegally, but Marshalltown is in
the same bind as many other rural communities across the heartland -
especially those with meatpacking plants where high turnover creates a
constant demand for labor.
It's a story of survival - on both sides of the border.
Marshalltown wants workers for its jobs, buyers for its homes, children for
its schools. The Mexican immigrants want a better life, period. And if it
means paying someone to sneak across the border, making a treacherous
journey, and risking arrest, so be it.
Not everyone, of course, comes here illegally, and Marshalltown has taken
steps to smooth the way. Several years ago, the police helped produce a
video in Spanish that explained everything from tornado sirens to parking
laws. It also included a warning: Police don't take bribes.
Many of the early racial tensions have faded - Walker says he no longer gets
calls asking, "What are you going to do about the Mexican problem?" - but
they haven't totally disappeared.
"You don't take a 99% Caucasian community, add 15-20% of people who are of a
different ethnicity and race and expect it to become a happy place
overnight," says Ken Anderson, president of the Marshalltown Area Chamber of
Commerce. "There's that element of fear on both sides."
But there has also been a growing acceptance as the first wave of
immigrants - young, mostly single men who worked at Swift, crowded into
houses on quiet streets and sometimes drank too much - gave way to families.
They bought homes, put their kids in school and opened restaurants,
groceries and dozens of other businesses.
"When you have any minority community come in ... there's going to be a
learning curve," says Mike Schlesinger, publisher of the Marshalltown
Times-Republican. "That rapidly escalated when families came in."
A decade ago, Schlesinger had to abandon a Spanish-language newspaper
because it couldn't get Anglo advertisers. But several months ago, a new
version, Voz, started publishing.
Still, a cultural divide remains and no one sees that more clearly than the
police. Walker says there's a "basic mistrust" of law enforcement among many
Mexican immigrants. It doesn't help that the force has no Hispanic
officers - despite recruitment efforts - or anyone fluent in Spanish.
These suspicions can be an obstacle, as Zuercher discovered while working a
troubling case last year.
A young Hispanic man was struck and killed by a car. His wife flagged down a
ride and went home, leaving his body in the road, without reporting the
incident. Both were illegal immigrants.
Despite a thorough investigation, Zuercher was never able to figure out what
"That just scares me - a human being was struck by a car in front of a young
child, his wife and other bystanders - and they leave the scene," he says.
"I don't understand it."
The immigrants, needing identification, often engage in identity theft; in
fact, when authorities raided the Swift plant last winter, several workers
were accused of identity theft or fraud.
Such cases are time consuming and frustrating, Zuercher says: One man called
from California wanting to know how he could owe back taxes on wages earned
in Marshalltown when he'd never been here. In another, someone in town had
used the same name and Social Security number as six or seven other people
around the country.
Not long ago, Zuercher arrested a longtime Marshalltown resident for having
a bogus ID. "Do you realize," a colleague asked, "you just arrested our
kid's soccer coach?"
It doesn't matter how long someone has lived here, he says, or whether he
has a house, a family or a job.
"We can't pick and choose," he says. "I can't turn a blind eye."
Neither can his fellow townspeople, anymore.
Last year, dozens of high school students, most of them Hispanic, walked out
of school to protest a proposed law that would make it harder for illegal
immigrants to work in the country, and pro- and anti-immigration crowds
rallied at Marshalltown's courthouse.
When Armando Torres passed by, he says some protesters screamed at him to go
back to Mexico.
"They don't know if you're legal or not," says Torres, an American citizen.
"You feel bad, you go home and you try to forget about it."
At the factory where he works, he says, someone tacked up a letter on a
bulletin board, comparing illegal immigrants to dirty birds who multiply and
"I understand that a lot of people are working without papers, breaking the
law," he adds. "Can they tell me how many Americans break the law?"
Illegal immigrants are not stealing, he says. "They're trying to work and
feed their families."
Some of those families end up in a bind. Elizabeth Castellanos, who is 9,
fears she'll have to leave Iowa because her father, who is being held in
Colorado, is facing deportation. "This is the place I was born and this is
the place I belong," she says. "I don't want to leave to go to Mexico. I
wouldn't feel comfortable there."
Elizabeth and her mother sought help at St. Mary's Catholic Church, which
has a large Hispanic flock. It's the same place many families turned to
after their relatives were arrested at Swift.
"People were wondering, 'How are we going to feed our families because the
breadwinner was gone or the job was gone,"' says Sister Christine Feagan,
director of the church's Hispanic ministry. "There also was the pressure of
families in Mexico who were counting on the workers to send them money."
More than $100,000 in donations poured in to help the families, most of them
from elsewhere in Iowa and the country.
After the December raid - one of six at Swift plants across the country -
federal agents returned in July. They made five more arrests, including a
union representative and a human resources manager who allegedly coached an
illegal immigrant on how to apply for a job using a fake name and documents.
These were not the first such raids. Ten years before, more than 140 people
were arrested for immigration violations at the same plant. In the decade
between, though, illegal immigrants were hiding in plain sight.
Since the police don't enforce federal immigration laws, "if you were simply
working or living here, you felt pretty safe," Walker says.
That ended last December for Francisco Vargas Acosta.
He wasn't surprised when federal agents raided the plant. He had heard
rumors. But he had no choice, he says: He needed the work - he earned $13.25
an hour - to help support his family.
His lawyers are trying to get him a work permit under a special program open
to those who've lived here 10 years consecutively. They are also fighting
his deportation, arguing it would create a hardship on his family.
"He's been working hard," says Megan Lantz, one of his lawyers, noting that
his wife, also a Swift employee, is a legal resident. "Are we really the
type of place that wants to prohibit them from being together?"
For Vargas, this place has been home nearly half his life. He followed
family here, attended school briefly and now has a house where he and his
wife want to raise their sons.
He waits now to see if that will happen.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.
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