Thursday, December 13, 2007

Immigration is Big in Iowa

Iowa voters are deeply troubled by the nation's immigration crisis: "They ought to be all shipped back to where they came from," says Demey.

The New York Times has the story:

STORM LAKE, Iowa — Along the main thoroughfare of this small meatpacking town, the transformation of a single shop, once known as the Ken-A-Bob restaurant, tells the story of the town itself.

The Ken-A-Bob, an old-fashioned buffet with American classics of fried chicken and roast beef, went out of business and reopened as Sichanh market, catering to a wave of immigrants from Laos. Now the shelves are also packed with Mexican spices, tostadas, chicharrones, the walls covered in signs in Spanish for Mary Kay cosmetics, baby sitters and Senator Barack Obama.

The nation’s struggle over immigration may seem distant in states like Iowa, hundreds of miles from any border, but the debate is part of daily life here, more than ever now as residents prepare to pick a president. Nearly all of more than two dozen people interviewed here last week said they considered immigration policy at or near the top of their lists of concerns as they look to the presidential caucuses next month.

And yet, nearly everyone interviewed said that none of the political candidates had arrived at a position on immigration that fully satisfied them. In real life, they said, the issues surrounding immigration, both legal and illegal, were far more complicated than bumper sticker slogans or jabs on a debate stage or even the carefully picked language of campaign policy papers.

The subject went largely unaddressed in Wednesday’s Republican debate in Des Moines after the moderator discouraged discussion of immigration, suggesting that Iowans already were familiar with the candidates’ positions.

Those who said they favored granting a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country were leaning mainly toward Democratic presidential candidates, but most said they wished their candidate could better explain how to carry out such a path practically and fairly.

And those who said they favored tough and immediate penalties for illegal immigrants said they mostly favored Republicans (though not Senator John McCain, who seemed to draw special ire here for what people called his disappointingly lax position), but said they had doubts that so many people could really be found or punished.

“I care about the illegal immigration issue a lot,” said David F. Friedrich, a farmer who said he was a supporter of President Bush and had yet to decide who he would support. “But when you start looking for solutions, I just don’t know. I think it’s too far gone.”

Like a handful of communities in Iowa — places named Denison, Ottumwa, Postville and Marshalltown — Storm Lake, a city of about 10,000, offers a glimpse at how new immigration has transformed the nation’s rural middle and with it, the political landscape.

Two decades ago, less than 1 percent of the people in Buena Vista County, where Storm Lake is the county seat, were Hispanic. By last year, the county had the highest percentage of Hispanic people of any county in Iowa, with 19.2, compared with less than 4 percent statewide. Buena Vista County also ranks highest in Iowa in percentages of those learning English in school, of recent international immigrants and of residents born in other countries.

In the interviews here, peoples’ focus on immigration held regardless of what perspective they brought to the debate, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, Hispanic or not, recent arrivals or lifelong Iowans.

Some, like Bob DeMey, said they were troubled by all the change in Storm Lake, which was once almost exclusively white but which, Mr. DeMey said, has come to be known among his friends as Little Mexico. So much immigration — mainly illegal immigration, he says — has taken meatpacking jobs away from the locals, left the schools jammed, and driven up crime.

“They ought to be all shipped back to where they came from,” said Mr. DeMey, who is retired.

I can understand where DeMay's coming from. We have a Little Mexico right here in Suburban Orange County: It's called Santa Ana (the county's federal seat, with a Latino population of about 90 percent).

It's frankly not practical to suggest shipping them "all back from where they came from," although I share some of the concerns of people like DeMay. We are a tremendously diverse country, although I think we ought to manage the expansion of that diversity a bit more.

I've written much about immigration. I favor tighening the borders to slow in-migration, but I also favor a path to legal status for the millions of undocumented migrants who have no other criminal offenses outside of their illegal alien resident status.

For more reading, check some of my favorites on the topic:

"Hispanic Nation,"at Business Week.

"The Hispanic Challenge," bySamuel Huntington, at Foreign Policy.

"What Grandma Would Say," by Peggy Noonan, at the Wall Street Journal.