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Immigration Issues in Iowa

posted on December 17, 2007 at 6:01 PM

Mundt: Here with us to expand our discussion of the immigration issue is Iowa House Minority Leader Chris Rants and Sister Christine Feagan of Hispanic Ministries in Marshalltown. Welcome to you both.

Sister Feagan, can you talk with me a little bit about the experience you had personally and the ministry has had in Marshalltown dealing with the aftermath of this and where you think the community is at?

Feagan: Well, the day of the raid, I was called about 8:00 in the morning, and went to the plant. There was really nothing that we could do at that point except help people get an 800 number that they could call later to find out what had happened to their family members. And then we opened our doors of the Hispanic ministry, and as people came in trying to get more information or needing a little bit of consolation or wondering what they should do next, we were just kind of there to help them.

And then a couple of days after the raid, a lot of community leaders came together and met in our church hall and kind of said together what can we do, what needs to be done, and what can I do to help. So there was a great outpouring of support all across the community.

And because of a lot of media coverage that we received, we did receive a lot of money and donations, that eventually we were able to help people that needed -- that needed help paying rent, because there was no money coming in, or they needed help with utilities or even buying diapers for little kids.

Mundt: We're seeing some of the photos from the day of the raid. These come from the Marshalltown Times-Republican. A year later -- "The Des Moines Register" did a piece today that said the community in some ways is still not fully together on this, but people don't look back on that as being a moment that they sullied the community, that they are building beyond it and growing and moving forward.

Feagan: We just had our celebration of our lady of Guadalupe on December 12. And, of course, what was utmost in people's minds who was what happened a year ago. And yet, a lot of those people have survived a year. Many of them have been able to get work permits and have gotten their legalization process moved along further. They've been able to survive.

A lot of people have left our community. A lot of people were deported. Other people are waiting to find out what's going to happen. There are people that are waiting for court dates to find out what's going to happen as a result from last December 12.

Mundt: Still some fear about what might happen?

Feagan: Definitely.

Mundt: Christopher Rants, Republicans had some proposals having to deal with employers who may perhaps knowingly hire undocumented workers. The Democrats have now come forward with some ideas we heard earlier on the show. I can't remember exactly the words you used, but I think it was something to the effect that the Democrats blew their chance earlier in the session.

Rants: We've made a couple different proposals in the last two years. Two years ago Republicans passed legislation. It passed through the House. Senator Gronstal, the Democratic leader in the divided Senate at the time, killed that legislation, which would have penalized employers who knowingly hire illegal undocumented workers.

It's interesting… a lot of Democrats vote against it, not all. But today, you know, Kevin McCarthy, who is the new majority leader, is one who opposed that piece of legislation two years ago. So Kevin has done a complete about-face and has now -- and I think it's testimony to the power of this issue with the public that he's now done an about-face has decided to come down on the side of opposing illegal immigration.

Mundt: Go into that a little but further. What's driving the Democrats to decide that's where they needed to be on this issue?

Rants: Well, I will tell you for a fact that they were in the field doing public opinion polls three weeks ago, and they've come out with a couple proposals since that point in time.

I'll tell you, earlier this year, the spring, while the Legislature was still in session, Republicans offered a proposal where we were taking some dollars that had been proposed to be spent to hire more tax administrators. And we said let's use these dollars in the department of public safety to deal with illegal immigration so we aren't just dependent on upon federal authorities, because the feds are failing us, that we have some people at the state level here to do that. Democrats opposed that as well. Suddenly they've again done a reversal and have realized that this is an issue that they need to be responsive to.

Republicans are prepared for that debate. We welcome that debate. And frankly, one of the things we want to talk about is it's not just employers. You know, there are organized labor unions in this state who are very happy to take dues from undocumented workers as well. If we're going to start penalizing employers -- and I'm fine with that. I think there should be a penalty for knowingly hiring somebody who doesn't have documentation and is here illegally. The unions shouldn't be benefiting from that either.

Mundt: Does that mean, then, that -- it sounds as though at least on the surface that Republicans and Democrats are now singing from the same song book. So is there an opportunity --

Rants: We might be on the same verse. I'm not sure if we're in the same song book, but we're on the same verse maybe.

Mundt: How do you think this may work out as far as policy is concerned. What might emerge from the next session or what do you hope for from your position?

Rants: Well, I would like to see that legislation move forward. It's something that we proposed before.

Mundt: Business and unions.

Rants: And I think it should be broadened to include the unions as well, not just only on the employers because, -- look, we estimate that in this state, we have roughly 70,000 undocumented workers. We know that the Nonpartisan Service Bureau estimates that we're spending 120- estimated to go as high as $200 million in state aid in one fashion or another for people who are here illegally. That is a growing problem.

We're headed in what I would consider to be the wrong direction, and the state needs to be more involved in trying to solve it. It's truly a federal issue but people are looking at all of their elected officials, whether it be your local mayor, your local police department, or your state officials in dealing with this.

Mundt: And saying what are you doing.

Rants: Right. And as I talk with most citizens, they really see this as a legal issue. It's a criminal issue. For some people -- and I know your show today is talking about the impact on families and people in Marshalltown in particular, but most folks when I talk to them say, "What is it people don't understand? You're legal or you're illegal." These folks are here illegally.

If you arrested 99 people in Marshalltown and they were hired at Swift, that meant you had 99 cents of false documentation. And we hear all the time about the fact that identity theft is growing. If you had somebody else doing false identification or with false identification with identity theft, I think the public would be more upset.

Mundt: I want to get -- Sister Christine Feagan, I think that's an important point here. I think it's a point you probably agree with, at least to a certain extent, that these people are here illegally and it is a matter of, at least from a law and order perspective, that something is wrong there.

Feagan: There's no question that if they came here without any kind of a visa or document, they are here illegally. But I think that it goes beyond that. Many of the people had no other choice of a way to come. Many of them came -- as a matter of fact, some people say sometimes -- they call it identity theft. They say we didn't steal this identity from anybody. We paid dearly for it. They paid a lot of money to get this documentation.

Mundt: The Social Security that they're using.

Feagan: I know it's against the law. And I think that we have to really look for some way to make it possible that people from other places that need to come to work can do that legally. And we need the work force.

Mundt: Christopher Rants, let me lay out -- I'm sure these are the blocks you're playing with as you're looking at this particular issue too. There is the issue of undocumented workers in Iowa. There's identity theft. There are issues there sometimes around law enforcement in some communities with some individuals.

There's also the fact that a lot of these undocumented workers are paying tax if they're employed, you know, FICA and all the rest as we heard in that report. They are making contributions to the community that they're in.

There's Iowa's work force, which is in a very interesting situation right now. We look at a work force shortage potentially in coming years. There are probably other blocks on that table too. So how do you arrange all that?

Rants: That's why it's a difficult issue because you're dealing with both a law and order issue because -- actually there have been some presidential candidates that have talked about sanctuary and talked about open borders and allowing all the illegals to stay here.

Most of those candidates -- Jeneane referenced John McCain gained the Des Moines Register endorsement. The Des Moines Register is endorsing senator McCain for issues like that, and that's one of the reasons he's behind in the polls is because Republicans don't happen to agree with his position on that.

You bring up the issue of a work force shortage. Where we're looking as a state where we have a work force shortage is in high-skilled jobs that require higher amounts of education. I realize that these folks are filling a void. That's why they're here. They're here because they can get a job. I understand that. They do pay dearly to get that document. That doesn't make it right. That doesn't make it legal.

The fact is the marketplace will determine our wage rates. The marketplace will determine and will fill that void. If it is other folks, you know -- the employers may have to pay more to hire folks, that's the way that marketplace will work.

But where we're really worried about the future is in terms of higher educated higher skilled workers, and that's really where we have to keep our focus on.

Mundt: And I think that's an important, valid point. I don't think, though, you're saying that we would turn our back on the Swifts and some of the companies that, although they are increasing the wages of their workers, are still probably not at that level with the highly skilled --

Rants: Of course these are not traditionally higher skilled jobs. It's the kind of thing that is going to be part of Iowa's economy, always will be because, let's face it, we have the cattle, we have the livestock, we have the agricultural products that demand processing. And it's more cost effective to do it closer to the source of origin, so we're going to have that here in Iowa. But we have to be careful about how we go about pursuing that.

Mundt: Sister Feagan, can you tell me a little bit about going back to communities and individuals and to the students in school, some of these are pretty bright minds and in some cases their parents are here illegally. Are there ways to get these students on a citizenship track or on a track that helps them be legal citizens or residents of the united states that, you know, as they're educated, they can gain skills that we can make use of.

Feagan: There was a reference made to the dream act, and I think that that's something that's very positive. In Marshalltown there's a really high dropout rate from Hispanic students from the high school. And I think that in many cases, there are kids that think there's no future for them. They can't go on to the university. And if they do, when they get out, they can't get a job if they don't have legal documentation.

If we as taxpayers have already invested a lot of money in these kids and their education, then we should be able to reap the benefits by having them join this higher skilled work force. And many of them are extremely bright, as Bonnie Lowry mentioned.

Mundt: Christopher, a couple of quick questions. We just have a few seconds left. First of all on the Dream Act, your thoughts on that?

Rants: And I understand the Sister's point, and your heart goes out to these kids. But we have -- the state has a finite amount of resources. Our community college tuition is already too high. Our Regents institutions' tuition is too high. Where do we put our dollars? I think you put the dollars into lowering tuition for those kids that are here legally before you start dealing with those that are not.

Mundt: Our time has run out, but thanks to both of you for spending time with us today.

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