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'As Iowan as cornfields': How immigration changed one small town

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Sergio Flores for ABC News(NEW YORK) —  When Maria Gonzalez was 3 years old, her mother heard from family who had already immigrated to the U.S. that she could find work in Marshalltown, Iowa.

She followed their advice and took her two young children from Villachuato, their small town in central Mexico, to take a job on the line of the town’s meat-processing plant, Swift & Co. That was in the 1990s. Today, though its name has changed, the plant remains the largest employer in the town.

For the Gonzalez family, the transition from Mexico wasn’t easy. They were undocumented, and Gonzalez’s mother didn’t speak English. When Maria Gonzalez started kindergarten, the school didn’t have an English as a second language program. But she learned English quickly, and by the time she was 10, she was helping her mother navigate everything from paying bills to registering her younger siblings for school.

Nearly 30 years later, Marshalltown is home to Gonzalez’s husband and children, her three younger siblings, and her mother.

“At this point,” Gonzalez said, “we have roots over roots.”

 The Gonzalez family was part of a wave of Latin American immigrants who came to Iowa beginning in the early 1990s. They were not the first Latinos to come to Iowa, but the 1990s marked the beginning of a rapid demographic shift: Iowa’s Latino population would increase by 480% between 1990 and 2018, according to the Iowa Data Center. Currently, the Latino population makes up 6% of Iowa’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and by 2050 that number is projected to double to 12%, according to Woods & Poole Economics, a firm that specializes in long-term demographics projection.

Like other towns across rural Iowa with meat-packing plants, Marshalltown experienced this shift more intensely than other parts of the state.

The town of about 27,000 was virtually all white for most of its history. In 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that only 248 Latinos lived in Marshalltown, but as of 2017, the Census Bureau estimates that approximately 29% of its population is Latino.

Local officials say this is likely an underestimate considering how many residents are undocumented. Over time, this demographic shift will become even more pronounced as the superintendent of the Marshalltown Community School District estimates that 70% of the town’s kindergarten students would be counted as an ethnic minority.

When asked about the minority enrollment in the town’s six elementary schools, Superintendent Theron Schutte estimated, “I’d say 64% non-white, close to 70% in kindergarten.”

 Today, Marshalltown’s diversity is itself a draw. Mike Tupper moved to Marshalltown nearly eight years ago to become the town’s chief of police. Remembering why he took the job, he said, “my wife and I were looking for an opportunity to work in a diverse community, in a place that looks like the rest of the world. I think that’s a great opportunity for our children to grow up in.” Now, his son is starting the first grade in a majority-minority classroom.

Marshalltown’s transformation wasn’t without tension.

In a paper published by the State Historical Society of Iowa about Storm Lake, a similar Iowa town whose economy also relies heavily on meat-packing, Dr. Mark Grey of Northern Iowa University wrote that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, “so-called new breed meatpackers — drove down wages and benefits, increased productivity, neutralized unions, experienced high employee turn-over, and relied increasingly on immigrant and refugee labor.”

Meat-packing plants that used to employ experienced butchers hired unskilled workers, and often preferred workers without a union background, according to Dr. Grey’s paper, which outlines that towns like Marshalltown subsequently lost many of their middle-class jobs.

 Mark Smith, who represents Marshalltown’s district in the Iowa House of Representatives and has lived in Marshalltown for over 30 years, described the transitional years as “a rough go.”

There was a fear that further immigration would cost longtime residents their jobs, and some people in Marshalltown argued that the town should shut down the meat-packing plant to curb further immigration.

“One of the big issues was making English the official language of Iowa, something that I voted against,” Smith said, “and was something politically that I had to address pretty regularly with people.”

Gonzalez emphasized that she always felt more welcome than unwelcome, though.

“I always get comments, and you know, ‘go back to your country’ or ‘you’re not welcome here,’” she said, “but yet, I have all these wonderful people in the community that love me and support me. So that’s more powerful to me than a handful of negativity or hateful words.”

It wasn’t just time that helped Marshalltown get through those transitional years and largely accept its demographic changes.

In 2000, then-Governor Tom Vilsack allotted the town $50,000 to encourage immigration and accommodate its new arrivals. In 2001, Floyd Harthun, the town’s mayor at the time, went to Villachuato — the Mexican village that the Gonzalez family and many other of the town’s immigrants came from — to learn more about his town’s new residents.

A local woman named Joa Laville helped Gonzalez and other young women personally affected by an ICE raid at the Swift plant in 2006 start Immigrant Allies, a nonprofit that is still advocating for immigrants in the community over 10 years later.

 Gonzalez met Laville while her family was still dealing the aftermath of her mother’s and uncle’s arrests during the raid. “I feel like Joa was our mother duck,” Gonzalez said. “Even though she wasn’t living it, she saw it and saw a need for support, and we all kind of came together. And here we are 10, 11 years later, and we’re still working on it.”

Over the years, the local government has put resources in place to accommodate recent immigrants and help the community accept them. There is a diversity committee that hosts events to promote cross-cultural awareness. Schools have ESL tutors and one of its six elementary schools is completely bilingual.

In the early 2000s, the school board changed how it organizes its middle schools to help integrate the town.

“We had a have and have-not school. So, our kids went to the have school; it’s Miller Middle School. Other kids on the east side of town that has the poorest homes — or homes of the least value — had to go to Lenihan,” said Joel Greer, the current mayor and a longtime resident.

Now, every fifth and sixth grader goes to Lenihan, and every seventh and eighth grader goes to Miller.

Although the transformation was not without its growing pains, Marshalltown needs immigrants.

“In restaurants and manufacturing plants,” said Mayor Greer, “it’s tough to find people that can pass a blood test and show up on day two. And so on immigration, bring it on and fix it, please Congress, because we need more workers.”

While other rural Iowa towns’ populations are shrinking, Marshalltown’s is growing — mostly thanks to immigration. In downtown Marshalltown, instead of the empty storefronts that are emblematic of so many rural towns, there is a string of local businesses. They are promoting new menus and renovations just a year after a destructive tornado swept through downtown. Many of them are Latino-owned and targeted at the town’s growing Latino population, such as Zamora Fresh Market where you can buy everything from fresh tortillas to Mexican candy.

 Greer said his daughters left Marshalltown to live in Austin and San Francisco. This is a common story in Marshalltown and across the Midwest, as people leave to find better opportunities in cities. However, he also said that this pattern doesn’t hold true for the Latino population: even as more and more of the second- and third-generation get college degrees and no longer work in the jobs that brought their parents to Marshalltown, they stay.

The story of the Gonzalez family reflects this idea. After being unable to get her residency through DACA, Maria Gonzalez got her permanent residency this past April through her husband. Now, she is getting her associate’s degree as she works as a case manager at MICA, a local non-profit.

Her husband has been trying to convince her to move, but she said she always tells him: “No, I’m not leaving. And now my children, our children, have grown here. This is their home. This is our community.”

In a community that depends on its diversity as a source of labor and revitalization, community leaders reacted against extreme views on immigration.

Greer repeatedly criticized politicians on both sides of the aisle for failing to come to an agreement on immigration. He worries about how the national rhetoric on immigration may affect his town.

“With the ramping up of the ICE idea,” he said, “I know it’s having an effect. I’ll bet we’re having more trouble keeping workers now because of that fear hanging over people’s heads.”

Marshalltown’s Chief of Police Michael Tupper reiterated the need for politicians in both parties to reform the immigration system and stop using the issue as a political tool.

“The rhetoric at the national level has definitely made our job harder,” Tupper said. “People are afraid to call the police, people are afraid to interact with the police, and that makes it more difficult for us to keep the community safe.”

Underrepresentation and the Beginnings of Change

Although Iowa is now 6% Latino, fewer than 25 out of more than 7,000 elected officials are Latino, according to the Latino Political Network, a nonprofit that works to empower aspiring elected officials in Iowa. In Marshalltown, the first and only Latino elected official is Karina Hernandez who serves on the school board.

Dave Barajas, a Marshalltown resident who runs a coffeecake business with his father, is the interim president of the Marshalltown council of the League of Latino American Citizens (LULAC), a nonpartisan nonprofit that supports Latino communities nationwide. He has helped lead a range of community organizations, including the local hospital and the YMCA. When he’s not serving on a board, he said, more often than not no one there is Latino. He sees an urgent need for that to change.

“When you have 70% of your kindergartners classify as ethnic minorities,” he said, “we can’t wait five years, we can’t wait 10 years, we can’t wait 15 years, because soon enough, these kindergartners are going to be graduated from high school, and then they at some point are going to be the leaders here in our community.”

Underrepresentation is not unique to Marshalltown. No Latino ever served on the Des Moines school board before Rob Barron ran successfully in 2013.

“Latinx folks started coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, I’m really proud you won, and I’d like to run too, how do I do it?’” Barron said of the time after his election. “And I started real simply — I’d take them out to lunch, talk about the things I did right and the many, many things I did wrong, and people started showing interest in running. I realized that’s great to do that one by one, but that’s too inefficient.”

In 2015, he and his friend Omar Padilla started the Latino Political Network. Barron believes that Latinos are underrepresented largely because there is often no one who has served in public office in their personal network.

“One of the first things that people do when they run for office is that they call somebody who’s run for that office before,” he said, “and they ask them about what it takes to win, what it’s like to serve — if you don’t have those people in your network, where are you going to start?” By connecting elected officials across the state and running training sessions for aspiring elected officials, he hopes to help break that pattern.

Last December, the Latino Political Network hired Jeanina Messerly as a fulltime organizer. She ran a voter registration drive at the local high school and organized a training session with help from the local paper to help people considering running for office prepare for being interviewed by the press.

Marshalltown is somewhat unique among towns that have experienced a similar demographic shift, though. Latino populations in other towns Messerly has visited have only more recently begun experiencing a demographic shift or never put resources in place to help the town through its changes.

“The [Latino] community in general is not supported through local government,” Messerly said of her visit to Denison, Iowa, a town that has also experienced a dramatic demographic shift. “So just the thought of politics was just not on anybody’s mind as something that would be an improvement to the community.”

Messerly and Barron believe there’s momentum behind their group’s work. In 2015, Latino Political Network counted only 10 Latino elected officials across the state. Four years later, there are nearly 25. In Des Moines, two young Latina women, Chelsea Chism-Vargas and Marlu Abarca, are running for city council. In Muscatine, a town of about 23,000 in eastern Iowa, David Salazar is running for city council at just 19 years old.

 “I definitely think that the younger Latino population is way more engaged,” Messerly said. “We have a median age of 23, so we’re also very young…we have also grown up with families that have had to deal with certain struggles that we can definitely relate to, but also aren’t hindered by, so we feel extra emboldened.”

Messerly is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to work the sugar beet fields in the Red River Valley. She is one of the growing proportion of Latinos in Iowa who are citizens born in the U.S., and not held back by their documentation status as their parents or grandparents may have been.

Gonzalez cannot vote, although she plans to apply for citizenship within the next five years. In the meantime, she is teaching her children to be civically engaged. She likes to bring her husband and children to Main Street to help register people to vote. More and more of the Latino population in Marshalltown — including her children and younger siblings — are citizens who were born and raised in the town.

“We’re as Iowan as cornfields now,” she said. “We’re here to stay, too.”

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