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Immigration in Storm Lake

posted on April 19, 2007

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The percentage of undocumented workers in the American work force is around 5 percent. In Iowa that figure is 6.2 percent, due in no small part to the meat packing industry. But in California, Arizona, and Texas, one out of every five workers is not authorized to be in the country. Illegal immigration may be a concern in Iowa, but in those states it is an issue. Despite the costs of assimilating immigrants, many Iowa communities seem to be not only coping but in fact seem to be prospering. Storm Lake is a case in point.

Mark Prosser has seen a lot of changes since becoming Storm Lake's Chief of Police in 1989. Prosser, who had served as a police officer just outside of East St. Louis, Illinois, was accustomed to the challenges that can come with racial diversity, but those didn't necessarily prepare him for the wave of immigration that would soon reach Storm Lake.

Prosser: Wherever there's change, there's challenges and you're going to find individuals on both sides of those that spectrum. But most certainly we have new types of businesses opening. Our different ethnic groups are bringing their culture here and opening businesses based around that. And our schools are growing; our school enrollment is growing.

Tedesco: Without the diverse population that we have, we would be probably about half the size student enrollment wise, going with just the Caucasians, if you will, in the rural community. So the fact that the business community is vibrant, you know, no matter what background the students are, staying steady to slightly growing in enrollment is tremendous. I mean that helps you plan to maintain in order to grow new curriculum versus the other way around.

Mundt: School Superintendent Paul Tedesco says that due to the 25-percent increase in enrollment over the last ten years, Storm Lake residents have recently had to consider the construction of new schools.

Tedesco: We just did a recent bond election for a new elementary; 81.5 percent voted yes. So that's phenomenal. You have to have 60 percent for a bond issue.

Mundt: Research for the bond referendum revealed that 74 percent of the district's homes were owner occupied, a figure that Tedesco says is average for rural areas of the state.

Tedesco: We're seeing more people of all ethnic backgrounds buying and owning a home and staying.

Mundt: The increasing enrollment and diversity, though, have created the need for additional remedial staff, especially at the high school level. Language and cultural barriers have prompted Mark Prosser's police officers to learn to communicate with the new immigrants. Prosser, though, refutes what he calls the myth of disproportionate crime rates.

Prosser: We have monitored that and tracked arrest rates and charges by ethnicity for well over fifteen years now, and in no time in that period has there ever been a disproportionate amount of minority arrests as compared to their presence in the community. The other issue with cultural differences is some of the cultures and groups that live here, their experience with public safety is completely different. In some cases they've dealt with individuals in public safety in their homeland that are corrupt, and for that reason it takes us a lot of time and a lot of effort to bridge those gaps and build a trust between law enforcement, government, and our new citizens.

Mundt: That need for trust in government has been partially satisfied by the election of Storm Lake's first Latino city council member. In addition to her political duties, Sara Huddleston works for the centers against abuse and sexual assault.

Huddleston: I talk to Caucasians, to Latinos, to Asians, to African Americans. They will come to my office for one question, like, you never no. It's so interesting. You wonder, well, I wonder if I'm doing a job. I wonder if I'm helping somebody. But they all say I hope one day I can sit on a desk like you.

Mundt: Not far from City Hall, Tony Talamantes puts the finishing touches on a local hunter's prized pheasant.

Talamantes: At least this business, it brings food for us. And you know, we are not rich or nothing, but at least we can afford stuff that we cannot even afford down in California, even down in Mexico.

Mundt: Talamantes came to Storm Lake fourteen years ago, spent eight of those working at a local packing plant, and then turned his hobby into a business. He and his family have put down roots in this northwest Iowa community.

Talamantes: Compared to the people down in California, it's like a hundred percent difference. You know, here the people, you know, everywhere you go, they welcome you and help you out. If you get a flat tire, there's more than one people to stop and give you a hand. If you go in the ditch, they pull you out. There's -- I cannot saying nothing wrong about the people from here.

Tags: immigration Iowa pheasants Storm Lake


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