Iowa adjusts to flood of Hispanic immigrants
By Kay Henderson
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) – Even deep in the Midwest, far
from the Mexican border, communities like Marshalltown, Iowa,
will feel the impact of a nationwide economic boycott planned
by immigrant groups on Monday.
“I think a number of services will be shut down because of
the lack of labor that day. Of course the whole point of this
is to demonstrate to people throughout Iowa the growing
importance of this population to our economy,” said Mark Gray,
an anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa.
In Marshalltown in central Iowa near Des Moines,
Mexican-owned El Vaquero western wear is a few doors down from
a mainstay like Barb’s Boutique, evidence immigrants are
rejuvenating this once-shrinking town of 26,000 people.
Hispanic-owned retailers and restaurants have sprung up in
the shadows of the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant, the town’s
largest employer and one of several plants across the Midwest
serving as magnets for immigrants.
Hispanics have established themselves in smaller cities and
towns across the Midwest, drawn to the region by what
demographers say has been high employment rates and
conservative values favoring families.
Polls show most Iowans believe immigrants “take jobs other
Iowans don’t want,” such as cutting and packaging meat where
hard work, not education or English proficiency, is required.
Spanish is taught along with English at a Marshalltown
elementary school, where two-thirds of the students are the
sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants.
Language instructor Tomasa Fonseca said she will not join
Monday’s protest in what has been billed nationally as a day
“I expect a regular day in Marshalltown,” said Fonseca, 38,
who immigrated from Mexico in 1993.
A university-run program called “New Iowans” aims to
acclimate Hispanic immigrants to predominantly white rural
Iowa, Gray said. Iowa’s Hispanic population ballooned by 150
percent between 1990 and 2000 to 2.8 percent of its 3 million
“We’ve seen more entrepreneurship out of the Hispanic
community,” said Republican state Sen. Larry McKibben.
“We have Main Street retail businesses that have started in
the past five years so you’re seeing a transition from people
who simply work for somebody else when they came here.”
A pipeline opened a decade ago between Marshalltown and
Villachuato, a poor village in Michoacan state in west central
Mexico. It has changed the character of both.
Former Mayor Floyd Harthun led city leaders on trips to
Villachuato to learn about Marshalltown’s newest residents.
“We wanted to find out what was driving these people to a
foreign land,” Harthun said.
Villachuato was very poor, Harthun said, and the major
concern was the loss of their young people. Marshalltown
launched a campaign to persuade Mexican workers who had been
migrating back and forth to stay in Iowa.
“We’ve worked really hard at including these people in
Marshalltown,” Harthun said. “We had just gone through quite a
change. We went from a relatively small minority population of
1 or 2 percent to nearly 20 percent in a relatively short
period of time.”
Marshalltown Police Chief Lon Walker said Hispanics do not
commit a disproportionate share of crimes but culture
differences pose challenges.
Unable to recruit Hispanics, Walker’s department relies on
a translation service and a dozen bilingual residents. In one
recent case, no one was willing to come forward to tell what
they knew about the traffic death of an illegal immigrant,
County official Gordie Johnson, who runs a restaurant, said
the Hispanic influx has not caused government outlays to rise,
though his own business suffered.
“I used to draw, for a customer base, from the whole (town)
of 30,000. Now I draw from 20,000 because I get very, very,
very few Spanish customers. It’s not good or bad. I’m just