Latinos in Iowa

Aug 2, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4647 | Podcast

Podcast

Campaigns are swirling across our entire state. But how are issues and candidates interacting and developing in the Latino community? We dig deeper with a pair of Iowa Latino leaders on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, August 2 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: Iowa's demographic makeup is still strongly majority white. But in recent decades, Latinos have expanded rapidly in key communities across our state. This growing community has brought with it economic opportunities, small town renewal and expansion. It has also brought controversy. Key issues like immigration make headlines on a weekly basis. What's the political impact of it all? We're joined today by a pair of Iowa Latino leaders. Rob Barron spent more than a decade on staff with former Senator Tom Harkin and is currently serving his second elected term on the Des Moines School Board. Mr. Barron also leads the Latino Political Network here in Iowa. Joe Enriquez Henry is an Iowa realtor who serves as National Vice President for the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. Mr. Henry has been involved in state and national politics for decades. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press. It's good to have you with us.

Yepsen: And just so our viewers know, you are both registered democrats and you both have endorsed Julián Castro for President.

Henry: Correct.

Barron: That's right.

Yepsen: Across the table are today's reporters, Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and David Pitt with the Associated Press.

Pitt: Well, gentlemen, maybe we can start with a demographic question. What is the level of population of Latinos in Iowa?

Henry: Well, we're at 6% right now, but 20% of the school age kids K-12 are from the minority community, most of which are from the Latino community. So when you look at 500,000 kids and then 20%, 100,000, mostly from the Latino community, we are growing exponentially.

Pitt: Part of our conversation today will be about politics and how that community weighs in, in the political arena. Can you tell us a little bit about how they might impact the caucuses, what kind of participation might we see and what the impact might be.

Barron: Sure. I think in a field of 20 plus democratic candidates there should be no voter left untouched and I think that there's a pretty large voting block of Latin voters in the state of Iowa spread all over the state. I like to tell people that, another demographic point for you, there's only one school district out of 300 plus in Iowa that doesn't have a Latino student registered. So our voters are everywhere and they're going to be contacted and they're going to make an impact.

Henry: What's important to know with the Iowa Caucuses, somewhere around 170,000 folks on the Democratic Party side participated in the Iowa Caucuses last time around. We estimated about 13,000 of our people participated last time around. We hope to increase that up to about 30,000 participants from the Latino community in the Iowa Caucuses just on the Democratic Party side and we'll have another portion participating on the republican side. But when we look at the Iowa Caucuses that is where we can amplify our voice with the participation from our community.

Masters: We're hearing a lot from the President rhetoric regarding the Latino community. Locally here in Iowa there was a raid in Mount Pleasant a little over a year ago. What kind of effect do you think these kinds of issues are going to have on people just from the Latino community wanting to participate in the Iowa Caucuses?

Barron: They hit every single one of us, Clay. It doesn't matter -- so I'm fourth generation in this state, immigrants from Mexico, but it still affects me on a personal level when I see some of the things that are said and hear some of the things that are said. It motivates me, it makes me want to be more active, it makes me want to bring others up. But the reason that they're doing it is because they're trying to suppress that vote, plain and simple. And to a certain degree I think that could work if it intimidates some people from being involved in the process.

Masters: Is it working? Are you hearing from people saying that it is making them not want to participate?

Barron: What frustrates me about this age in politics, if I can be frank, is that folks like me who run for office are immediately untrustworthy because others who have that responsibility, who are at high levels, are just out and outlying at times. And so that is the biggest impact as much as anything else. We'll see what type of an impact some of this rhetoric has on our turnout. But for now I just want to see folks motivated and engaged.

Henry: I think what's important there too is that the 2018 midterm election was a good measuring point on that to figure out whether or not there is a chilling effect. What we found out, especially when we were measuring voter participation from the Latino community in November of last year, was that actually more of our people were turning out last time around in 2018 versus in 2016. So it's not creating a chilling effect but it is bringing up a lot of concern that if we don't engage somebody else will decide for us. So that is kind of our mantra right now is we need to engage and if we don't somebody else will decide for us what is in the law. So we are engaging.

Yepsen: I want to ask both of you, you say it is being done deliberately, Mr. Barron, to suppress turnout. Well, what is law enforcement supposed to do in this country if there are people here who are not here legally, who violated the law to get here and some of them have committed crimes while they're here? Are they supposed to just walk away and ignore this? If you headed ICE, what would you do?

Barron: Well, first of all, it's not a job I ever aspire to. But my dad is a cop, okay, a retired cop right now so I don't minimize the importance of law enforcement. But here's the deal, of those 185,000 Latinas and Latinos in this state, some of those folks are undocumented. But almost all of those folks are creating a positive impact in our community on a daily basis. They're in our schools, they own businesses, they are doing things on a daily basis that anybody else in this community is doing. They should not be criminalized for living their lives. It's a failure of the political system to not appropriately give these folks a path to citizenship and a way to be fully engaged in our society.

Yepsen: Mr. Henry, what do you say?

Henry: It should never be considered a crime to be undocumented. And of course we've heard from the presidential candidates a lot of different viewpoints on that. There is a rule in the immigration law that was put in, in 1929, that made it, changed it from a civil offense to a misdemeanor or a felony to be undocumented, to be here in an undocumented fashion. So the thing is we need to expand the discussion, the awareness about we're all have histories of immigration here in the country. This country was built by immigrants. We should have policies and laws in place that welcome immigrants. We should not say that if somebody is undocumented that that's illegal. It should never be considered that way. We should provide a pathway to citizenship. And that is a discussion that I hear, there's a lot more discussion this time around from the presidential candidates. Julián Castro has probably given the best proposal on immigration, to go back and look at undocumented immigrants, to make it a civil issue, not a felony, not a misdemeanor, and to get rid of a rule that was put into the law in 1929.

Yepsen: David Pitt.

Pitt: Mr. Barron, we have virtual caucuses for the first time this year. Do you think that would encourage participation on the behalf of people who may be afraid to present themselves personally to a caucus or a voting booth or whatever? Do you think that would help at all?

Barron: I think so. I think it's a positive thing. Listen, I've got a six year old and a one year old so I'm curious about how the virtual caucus is going to work because the caucus is happening right around bedtime on a school night. But in a way I'm pretty consistent with my population because we trend younger and so there's going to be a lot of young parents and we want them to be fully engaged but we have to respect their family dynamic.

Yepsen: Mr. Henry, just so our viewers are clear, a virtual caucus is a system the Iowa Democratic Party is setting up where a caucus goer doesn't have to show up on caucus night but can register and then participate by phone. What is your view of the impact? I'm hearing a mixed vibe from you guys. One is that a lot of Latinos are intimidated and afraid to be coming out. And then I also hear you say they're energized, they're getting radicalized, they're made.

Henry: Sure. Well, in 2016 we in LULAC spent a quarter of a million dollars to encourage our people to vote, to engage in the Iowa Caucuses. The virtual caucus thing that's fine, but that only taps as far as the measuring stick. No matter what the number is, it's only going to take in a 10% impact on the Iowa Caucuses. We would prefer, my opinion and that of LULAC's, is that to make sure that our people engage physically right there at the Iowa Caucuses within the precincts throughout Iowa and that is going to be our intent is to mobilize our people, to not only do the virtual but to try to really get to the caucus location within each of the 1,700 precincts. That's very important. And I think that will work much more successfully for our community.

Yepsen: Do you have a follow-up, David?

Pitt: So, I guess if you look at that, do people have a fear of participating personally? I mean, we've heard even if you're a legal citizen and you have a right to be there, if you have a family member, know someone who may not be, do you fear compromising --

Henry: The fear is not so much there because when we look at our demographic we are a young community. I mean, our median age is about 23 here in Iowa versus the overall community which is 38. We have a lot of young people who want to speak up not only for themselves but for their families. We have mixed status families where the kids are U.S. citizens and maybe one of the parents or a relative who is living at the household might be undocumented and the young people want to speak up, they want to speak up for not only themselves but for their family members. So they feel that it's important. So we have to look at that age range there, young people coming up wanting to speak out. So fear is not going to hold our people back.

Masters: We've had two sets of presidential debates. We've seen a lot of different candidates come in. I know you guys have both endorsed Julián Castro. But do you feel like there are candidates that are taking off within the Latino population in the state?

Henry: Well --

Yepsen: We're asking you for a handicap. We know who you've endorsed. And you've given the commercial. So who's doing well? Who's doing poorly?

Masters: And if I might follow up here, just that we've seen article after article and certainly I've written them about how democratic candidates are working to appeal to white working class people in Iowa and Michigan and Pennsylvania. Is there an effort to really get out the Latino vote this time? And who are those candidates?

Henry: There are some of the others, other than Castro. We've seen Bernie Sanders who was here before who has activists from 2016 who reached into the Latino community. Kamala Harris has done a very good job. Her campaign is reaching out to our community. I haven't heard as much from Elizabeth Warren. How about you?

Yepsen: Mr. Barron, who's doing well? Who's doing poorly?

Barron: I'll give credit to Kamala Harris. She brought out a Latino Mayor from California about a week and a half ago and did a couple of stops across the state of Iowa and that was smart. I think that we don't have enough Latin elected officials in this state so any time we can bring people in who can tell their stories and relate to our voters that is a positive.

Pitt: There was a lot of news about the citizenship question on the census. And it raised concerns obviously. Do you think that's going to be an issue in this election cycle? Are people concerned about that even though it's not going to be there? Still a lot of discussion about where that might end up through the court system. Mr. Barron, you can take that question first.

Barron: I certainly hope not. I feel like the courts have settled this. The Trump administration has backed down finally. So I think we can hopefully get on to the business of having the proper type of census that we need as a country. And, again, this is another action that was I think very plainly about discouraging people from participating in an important process. And that is not us, that's not this country and it's the wrong thing to be doing.

Yepsen: Mr. Henry, same question to you. Is all this chatter about the census and adding this question, has that discouraged Latinos from participating in the census? Or some people say it's energizing people to participate. Where do you come from?

Henry: Well, it's both. It's both energizing and discouraging at the same time. We've had a national discussion about what should we do if the citizen question gets into the census and we have been communicating with the folks at the Census Bureau about what to do, who they're going to hire, how outreach is done. So it's something that we have to prepare because some families will be concerned about it. If it's a mixed status family there will be concern there. There's other, of course as Rob had indicated and myself, we're several generations into the United States here so it wouldn't be so much of an issue to us. But we have a growing community. So we're preparing on all fronts. I guess that's the answer to that.

Masters: I'm curious how are you communicating with your members about this election and about questions that the Latino community has about the caucuses, about information that they need to know about how to participate? How much of a dialogue is taking place?

Henry: I think we have two. In LULAC, our organization has 18 councils here in Iowa. So our councils go from Eastern Iowa to Western Iowa, up north, down south. So we're communicating through our local councils and with our volunteers reaching out into our communities. We have also updated a voter file or our registered Latino voters here in the state. And this fall we plan on registering many more Latino voters here in the state. So we plan on doing a lot of door-to-door, working with other organizations such as Rob's to do that outreach.

Yepsen: Mr. Henry, a quick follow up. I remember Bill Richardson running for President and he came in here and talked about all these Latino voters who are people who are not signed up and we're going to do programs in Davenport and Des Moines. Nothing happened. So what makes this different?

Henry: In 2007 we started gathering data on our registered voters. Actually in 2007 we had about 23,000 registered Latino voters in Iowa. We have more than doubled in that amount of registered voters and we have tracked it since then because we have heard many, many times that our people don't vote. But our stats indicate that we do vote and we vote in large proportions. So we've been working very hard over the last 10 to 12 years to really do that outreach.

Pitt: What do you think we should do with the southern border, the southern border issues that we've heard about? Do you have a solution, something you'd recommend, something you suggest?

Barron: We need to take good care of the people that are coming to this country. We've got to take care of the mothers and the fathers and the kids that are coming to this country, period, plain and simple. And the government is failing us on this point and have been for the last several years. Our elected leaders are ducking the issue in Washington, they don't want to take the tough votes, they don't want to do things that might enflame an already fiercely partisan base and people are suffering.

Yepsen: I'd like to switch gears to the economic impact that the Latino community has in Iowa. Mr. Henry, sometimes wonder if Iowans like to have it both ways. They object to Latinos being in Iowa and undocumenteds being here and yet who is going to clean out the dairy parlor? Who's going to pack the meat? So give me your take on, two-part, on the economic impact, but then also how Latinos are being received in this state.

Henry: Yeah, good question. So we can answer that in a couple of different ways. We can say, first of all, let's look at the immigrant community, which is 5% of the population. We can look at the Latino community, which is 6%. And kind of like a folding of both of those. When we look at the immigrant community that's $3 billion a year of buying power just from the immigrant community, that's 5%. So then when we look at the Latino community we can double that, more than double that. And then we also look at the fact that 50% plus of the agricultural workers here in Iowa are from the immigrant community and the Latino community. Then we look at construction, building homes, laying concrete on roads, the service sector, a tremendous impact that the Latino community and the immigrant community have provided. We look at the population of Iowa and you all know, there was a dip in our population less than 3 million when we ended the 1990s and then going into the 2's we were still like 2.9 million. But over the last 10 to 12 years we're now at 3.1 million and that's due to the growth of the Latino community and the immigrant community and that has been documented many different times.

Barron: If I can, David, you mentioned public perception and I just want to be clear, the last time the Des Moines Register did an Iowa Poll on immigration it was a minority if the state the felt that there shouldn't be a path to citizenship. A majority of the people that responded were supportive of giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. So this state I think is favorable on this issue. There's always going to be people that are going to be shouting from the edges against, but I think overall people understand that these are families we're talking about here.

Masters: You mentioned the average age, 23, so over time, over the decades how have communities, how have Latino communities assimilated into these towns? How has that changed? And how has acceptance changed from what you're hearing from members?

Henry: Well, there's been a lot of acceptance as a matter of fact. And we've seen communities throughout Iowa, small communities that were dying communities in the '90s and then with Latinos and the immigrant community, because I have to kind of separate it to a certain extent, they have added growth bringing back businesses, buying up storefronts that were vacant. So there has been a lot of acceptance. And it's very strange, even in Northwestern Iowa, Buena Vista, Storm Lake, welcoming the Latinos there but still we have the hate mongering that goes on. So we have politicos up there who still carry the party line of the Republican Party, but at the same time they realize the value of their Latino workers, of their immigrant workers, and they welcome that. So we have to have a discussion about the reality. Iowa is being rebuilt due to a couple of different things, both the immigrant community and the Latino community. We need to realize it, understand it and accept facts that we have to make laws that embrace that because we cannot continue to grow without changing the laws.

Yepsen: Mr. Barron, how do you react to Clay's question?

Barron: Which is?

Yepsen: Assimilation.

Barron: Assimilation. Well, there's no one dominant culture in this country, there never has been. We're a mix of a bunch of different perspectives. I go to my son's kindergarten classroom and I see different faces, different backgrounds. Just in the Latino community, Latino itself is just a catch all that was put on people that come from 15, 16 different countries. I no more speak for the Latino community than Joe or than anybody else. We're a broad, rich group of folks. But when we get here and when we put down roots we're doing the same things everybody else is doing, we're playing in little league, we're buying businesses, we're going to school.

Henry: But we do have a saying, if you're not already related to a Latino, you soon will be, and it has been welcomed across Iowa.

Yepsen: But Mr. Barron, to this assimilation point, one of the criticisms you hear in the white communities is that Latinos don't want to assimilate, hang together, don't participate in things. Is that true? Not true?

Barron: I don't think it's on us. I think it's community wide and I think you see it happening less often, you see I think a broader integration in smaller communities. So Storm Lake, you drive down Storm Lake and without the Latino owned businesses in Storm Lake then that community would fold.

Yepsen: Yeah, there's not a lot of empty storefronts in that town.

Barron: Right. But here in Des Moines I spoke to Rotary a year ago just about this and said, okay, you have this sphere of influence out here and that's great, but over here there's a very valuable sphere of influence that you're not tapping at all. So it's not just on us to be reaching out to others.

Masters: Quickly here, the Latino Political Network, the organization that you're a part of, to get more representation at the elected, into elected office, there's nobody representing Latinos in the state legislature right now if I'm correct.

Barron: And there never has been.

Masters: And there never has been. Quickly here in the remaining time, how are you recruiting more people? And how are you measuring success?

Barron: 185,000 Latinos in this state, 7,500 elected offices from school boards up to Chuck Grassley. 23 are held by Latinos right now, 23. There's no Latin legislators, no mayors. What we do is we go community to community, we go to places where there's decent populations and we organize, we go knock on doors, we talk to people about being more engaged, we find who the people are that want to run and we work with them. I like to tell people, I was on the phone with a woman last night who is thinking about running for county supervisor out in Eastern Iowa, we shave the top off the learning curve, we want our candidates to be the most prepared and the most viable candidates when they enter a race.

Pitt: That would raise the question that we haven't seen a lot of candidates. So how do you recruit? Or how do you convince people that this should be a path for them?

Henry: I think you see that in the Des Moines City Council candidates right now. We have several, two or three now who are Latinas.

Barron: At least two, yeah.

Henry: Yes, we have one Latina that is running at large in the city of Des Moines and one that is running in the fourth ward. So there's movement there and we're hearing about that throughout the state too. I'm hearing some stuff over in Scott County and Davenport too about some possible county supervisor positions coming up. So we're seeing this with our younger generation.

Yepsen: Don't you have to do more? Women in this state were underrepresented in the legislature, still are. They had a special effort to try to recruit more. Doesn't the Latino community in Iowa have to do the same thing?

Henry: We do.

Barron: That's what I'm doing, David, that's what I'm doing. So this effort is, it's about, it's for us and it's by us and it's about going out and it's about finding people who have that commitment to their community and giving them the tools they need to be a successful candidate. That’s what we do every single day, we're out there organizing communities and finding candidates. We'll have candidates, honestly right now I care more about the local elections in November than I do about the caucuses in February.

Yepsen: Just a few seconds left. Is this mostly an effort to help democrats? Or are you trying to help republican Latinos?

Barron: I'll take anybody, anybody from my community that wants to help me out. This is a non-partisan effort. This is about just getting more of us in positions of power. If you're not at the table, you're on the menu.

Yepsen: Gentlemen, I'm out of time. Thank you both for being with us, appreciate it. Thank you.

Henry: Thank you.

Barron: Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back next week as our network is hip deep into coverage of the Iowa State Fair. Join us on Iowa Press at our regular airtimes, 7: 30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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