STORM LAKE, Iowa – During the 1960s and 1970s, Richard
Krout slaughtered hogs at a now-defunct meat-processing
plant where the union label helped him earn more than most
teachers. The work was strenuous, but the pay and benefits
made it a job many Iowans wanted for themselves and their
Today, he said, the work is being done more cheaply,
mostly by foreign-born workers with low job expectations.
“They'll work as much as you want and under just about
any conditions, and they won't ask questions,” he said. He
lamented that those meat-packing jobs, once so prized
across the Midwest, have deteriorated to the point that
few native Iowans want them.
Krout's bitterness reflects a broader concern among
many Iowans over the perceived impact of immigration on
their state. Those concerns are being felt in the
presidential campaign here in America's heartland,
especially for Republican hopefuls.
When Iowa Republicans hold their first-in-the-nation
caucuses Jan. 3, some say immigration will be a prominent
voting issue here for the first time.
Rightly or wrongly, some GOP voters associate the
swelling population of foreigners with rising poverty,
declining real wages, uninsured drivers operating without
valid licenses, swelling school enrollment, declining
student performance, rising crime and crowded housing.
“To me, it ties in with terrorism; it's security; it's
a political issue; it's health care,” said Sallie Vorrie
of Fort Dodge, who came to a recent campaign stop to press
former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee to crack down on
illegal immigrants. “I think a lot of these people are
going to our hospitals for health care. We're paying. If
we didn't have to pay for these freeloaders, we'd be
better off. And a lot of them are going on welfare. And I
am sick of it.”
Voter angst in Iowa over immigration has been
especially hard on Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the
leading sponsors of legislation to provide legal status to
millions of immigrants. That measure failed in Congress
amid protests from across the country.
“McCain is simply not competitive here, and to a great
extent that's because of the immigration issue,” said
politics professor Dennis Goldford at Drake University in
Meanwhile, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo has developed a
core of supporters for a candidacy based almost entirely
on his hard-line stance against illegal immigration.
The Republican front-runner in Iowa, former Gov. Mitt
Romney of Massachusetts, criticized the McCain-sponsored
measure as amnesty and declared his determination to stop
illegal immigration. Romney has chided Rudy Giuliani for
his record when he was mayor of New York, saying
Giuliani's public welcome of illegal immigrants encouraged
more people to enter illegally.
Giuliani has responded with a vow to “end illegal
The issue holds far less voltage for the Democratic
candidates, all of whom favor giving legal status to many
of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
“The Democrats see it as a humanitarian as well as a
legal issue, and they want to find a solution on that
basis,” Goldford said.
Storm Lake, a bucolic college town with a 3,200-acre
natural lake surrounded by city parks and homes, began
receiving a trickle of Laotian refugees in the mid-1980s.
That was followed by a slightly larger flow of Mexican
Mennonites in the early 1990s. In the mid-1990s, a larger
influx of non-Mennonite Mexican workers began, and it has
continued to grow.
All three waves directly resulted from recruitment
efforts by the largest meat-processing plant in Storm
Lake, now owned by Tyson, according to a study done by
Mark Grey of the anthropology department at the University
of Northern Iowa.
While the foreign-born work force has helped Tyson's
bottom line, Grey found that the influx of the workers and
their families to Storm Lake correlated with an increase
in poverty, crime, local public health care costs, school
expenditures and a range of other adverse economic impacts
on the community.
Numbers are part of the story, even in a state where 91
percent of the population is white. The U.S. Census Bureau
reported a 39 percent increase in the state's Latino
population between 2000 and 2006. The state's 114,700
Latinos tend to cluster around meat-processing plants in
towns such as Storm Lake, Denison, Perry and Marshalltown.
While the numbers might seem small, the reactions are
“They're angry about global economic changes, but I
don't know how many people see that,” said Storm Lake
Police Chief Mark Prosser. “What they see are the
immigrants. They can't understand them in the aisles of
the store. They see property maintenance issues. There's a
lot of folks who are scared.”
Sara Monroy-Huddleston said she believes the fears and
concerns about the influx of immigrants are overblown. A
native Mexican, Monroy-Huddleston thought her election to
the City Council here four years ago was a watershed
moment in which residents were saying to immigrants, “We
want you to be part of the community.”
But acceptance only goes so far.
She believes the fundamental problem is a cultural
chasm between those born into the middle-class American
heartland and immigrants, most of whom are from Mexico's
“Some people feel like the people come into their homes
and it's like they're putting their feet up on the
furniture,” said Monroy-Huddleston.
In an old farmhouse along an unpaved road 30 miles
south of Storm Lake, the congressman who represents
western Iowa sat at his kitchen table and worried that
immigration is shaping “a Third World America.”
Steve King, the top Republican on the House immigration
subcommittee, has made immigration enforcement the
centerpiece of his campaign. He doubts that Iowa's highly
regarded public school system can deal with the challenge
of helping the children of immigrants find a way to the
“There's a commitment to education that comes with a
culture,” he said. “But you don't see that in large
numbers among those coming across the southern border.”