Iowa Public Television


Immigration Issues in Election in Unlikely Farm State

posted on November 2, 2012

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The government released its final unemployment report Friday, just days before the elections.  And as you might expect, both President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, seized the numbers to make political hay. 

According to the Labor Department, U.S. employers added 170,000 positions to their payrolls in October. 

Nevertheless, America’s unemployment rate ticked back up to 7.9 percent.  Keep in mind, no president since FDR has been re-elected when unemployment exceeded 7.2 percent.  But other data this week suggested that record could be in jeopardy. 

The Institute for Supply Management reported its manufacturing index rose to 51.7 in October, marking the second consecutive monthly improvement.  Meanwhile, the Conference Board said its Consumer Confidence Index surged last month to its highest level in nearly five years.

And in the wake of a dismal October on Wall Street, U.S equities began November on a positive note as the Dow, S&P 500 and NASDAQ all rallied Thursday but fell back on Friday.

President Obama held up Friday’s payroll numbers as a sign of real progress. Governor Romney, on the other hand, said rising unemployment indicates America’s economy is at a virtual standstill.  And while the economy is the top issue for most of the electorate, some disenfranchised voters have other priorities.  Paul Yeager explains. 

Last fall, in the run up to the Iowa Caucuses, illegal immigration was a hot topic on the campaign trail.

But this fall -- despite numerous appearances by President Obama and Mitt Romney -- the issue is almost never mentioned in this key battleground state. 

While Latinos account for just 5% of Iowa's population, their numbers have increased by 110% over the past ten years. And nowhere is that growth more evident than right here.

Paul Yeager: "Perry Iowa has a population of about 8,000 people. It's located north and west of Des Moines and was founded by German immigrants who worked on the railroad. But over the last 30 years, the population has changed. Immigrants have come from Central and South America looking for work. And they're finding it at the local meat packing plant."

Jay Pattee, Mayor, Perry, Iowa "I always like to say Perry, Iowa is a place where we embrace our heritage but celebrate our diversity. And that's what we've become today."

Jay Pattee owns Ben's Five and Dime store… and serves as the town's mayor. He's watched as nearly 3,000 Latino immigrants arrived in Perry. 

Mayor Jay Pattee: "Perry was a pretty ivory place in 1980 when we moved here. And when it started to change, I think some people were afraid of the change. I guess it's the fear of the unexpected.

Paul Yeager: “Does that exist at all today?”

Jay Pattee: “It's a lot less evident than it was.”

According to the mayor, one reason the town has adjusted so well is that newcomers were never isolated in separate neighborhoods or schools. Pattee -- a conservative democrat -- thinks that has made folks more moderate on the immigration issue... and less tolerant of extremist language used by some candidates.

Mayor Jay Pattee "Michelle Bachmann came to Perry to build up support for her really tough stance on immigration. And I think she was disappointed in what she got out of here."

Even Philip Stone, a retired school teacher, city councilman and lifelong Republican, was disturbed by the tone he heard during the caucuses... especially when candidates proposed deporting illegal immigrants.

Phil Stone, Perry City Council: "I have believed for a long time that we should set up a procedure for people to get their citizenship. It's not easy. It isn't easy now. But I don't think we can send them back. Being realistic. We're not in a position to upend families -- in the neighborhood of 8 million people -- and send them back."

Stone also worries that anti-immigrant rhetoric is turning off a group of potential voters.

Phil Stone "As a Republican, I think there are a lot of opportunities to work in the Latino communities, bring these people in. It's unfortunate that it's such a hot issue with some people that prevents it a little bit. It's unfortunate there isn't more of an outreach.

Paul Yeager: “Are they welcome?”

Phil Stone, Perry City Council: “I'm sure they would be. But I'm sure their perception is that the Republican party is not theirs, for a variety of reasons.”

Iowa has seen its share of deportations of illegal workers... Most notably in huge raids at meatpacking plants in Postville and Marshalltown four and six years ago.

But those facilities have since closed or been taken over.

Tyson foods, one of the largest meat processors in Iowa, uses a system called E-verify to check the legal status of workers.

It's a system operated by the Department of Homeland Security, and it’s used on a voluntary basis across the country. Mitt Romney has said he would like to see more states require businesses to use it.

Farmer and Republican State Representative Julian Garrett sponsored a bill that would do just that in Iowa.

Iowa State Rep. Julian Garrett "It's a very simple system. It isn't costly to business. With all of the problems we've had at the border, it just struck me that this is so simple and efficient and would have a huge impact on the problem.”

Garrett's bill failed during Iowa’s last legislative session, but if re-elected, he hopes to try again next year.

But Obama supporter, Sandra Sanchez, believes programs that encourage young immigrants to become legal citizens should be welcomed in Iowa.

Sandra Sanchez, Iowa American Friends Service Network: “We are a state that is aging very rapidly. Our baby boomers are retiring and we are not having young people stay here, other than immigrants. We need to understand that immigration in Iowa is actually an asset and we could tap into that asset and manage it in such a way we can grow.”

And with polls indicating a tight presidential race, both candidates probably will avoid hot button issues like immigration, for fear of alienating a single vote. 

Reporting from Perry, Iowa, I’m Paul Yeager.

Tags: agriculture Barack Obama campaign e-verify immigration Iowa Mitt Romney Perry presidential debate Tyson


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