Illegal immigration reshapes culture of small-town Iowa

Metal pigs line the top of the receiving dock at the Swift & Company meatpacking plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. The plant, the town's largest employer, has faced two federal crackdowns for employing illegal immigrants.

? Everyone knew they were there, doing dirty and dangerous work in the meatpacking plant. They had come more than 1,000 miles, from impoverished rural Mexico to the lush corn country of the Midwest. Some looked the other way. Others offered a helping hand.

Then federal agents swept through, and the complicated bargain that Marshalltown had made with illegal immigration was laid bare.

This town in the heart of middle America that has been transformed – even rejuvenated – by immigration stands as a symbol of the predicaments and pressures faced by many communities today.

‘Going to be gored’

“It’s a matter of enforcing the immigration laws while recognizing families are trying to improve their life,” says Mayor Gene Beach. “How do you balance that? Someone is going to be gored.”

In Marshalltown, that someone might be the meatpacking worker caught up in a raid. Or the police detective unable to solve the mystery of a Mexican man found dead on a busy road.

As the latest crop of presidential candidates crisscrosses Iowa, their speeches bristling with catch phrases about the border, Marshalltown is confronting a problem whose roots are far away.

“If you’ve got a leaky hot-water heater, you’ve got to fix the leak before the mess,” Police Chief Lon Walker says. “We’ve got the leak at the border. The mess is in Marshalltown.”

Twice in the last nine months, federal agents have swooped down on illegal immigrants at the town’s largest employer, the giant Swift & Co. pork processing plant. More than 100 people were arrested as part of a national crackdown.

Francisco Vargas Acosta was among those apprehended last December. It was, he says, the second time in a decade that he was arrested at the plant. The first time, he was a teen and returned to Mexico voluntarily. Now a 29-year-old father of two sons, he is fighting deportation.

“I’m not a bad guy,” Vargas says, sitting in his living room. “I just want to stay here for my kids. There’s more of a future here. In Mexico, there’s nothing.”

Detective Dane Zuercher understands that desperation. He can even sympathize a bit, but he says he can’t condone breaking the law.

“We all want to better ourselves; we want better things for our kids,” he says. “But you can’t commit a crime to make that happen.”

Marshalltown can’t ignore the presence of illegal immigrants – whether it’s raids or police cases that involve people who cross the border and buy or use stolen identities for jobs.

And the town can’t thrive without immigrants. The growth in the Hispanic population – from a few hundred in 1990 to perhaps as much as 20 percent of the 26,000 residents now – has pumped new blood to this aging rural community.

“The leaders know darn well this town would really be suffering if not for the influx of refugees,” says Mark Grey, a University of Northern Iowa professor and immigration expert.

Small-town changes

Marshalltown still has the Ben Franklin on Main Street, the cozy Maid-Rite diner, the grand 19th-century courthouse, places and events that define small-town America.

But life in this Grant Wood landscape also has been shaped by new sights and sounds: Bilingual signs. Spanish-language Masses. An annual Hispanic Heritage festival.

No one knows how many of the town’s immigrants are here illegally, but from the beginning, the community has tried to ease the transition for newcomers. Several years ago, police helped produce a video in Spanish that explained everything from tornado sirens to parking laws.

As the Hispanic population has grown, many of the early racial tensions have faded, but they haven’t totally disappeared.

“You don’t take a 99 percent Caucasian community, add 15-20 percent of people who are of a different ethnicity and race and expect it to become a happy place overnight,” says Ken Anderson, president of the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce.

There has also been a growing acceptance as the first wave of immigrants – young, mostly single men who crowded into houses on quiet streets and sometimes drank too much – gave way to families. They bought homes, put their kids in school and opened businesses.

Law enforcement troubles

There still is, however, a “basic mistrust” of law enforcement among many Mexican immigrants, Walker says. It doesn’t help that the force has no Hispanic officers or anyone fluent in Spanish.

When a young Hispanic man was struck and killed by a car last year, his wife went home, leaving his body in the road, without reporting the incident. Both were illegal immigrants.

Despite a thorough investigation, Zuercher was never able to figure out what happened.

Zuercher also finds himself dealing with a steady flow of identity theft cases. When authorities raided the Swift plant last winter, several workers were accused of identity theft or fraud.

While police are frustrated by these fraud cases, the families have their own anxieties.

Elizabeth Castellanos, 9, fears she’ll have to leave Iowa because her father may be deported. “I don’t want to leave to go to Mexico,” she says.

Elizabeth and her mother sought help at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which has a large Hispanic flock. It’s the same place many families turned to after their relatives were arrested at Swift.

After the December raid – one of six at Swift plants nationwide – federal agents returned in July. They made five more arrests, including a union representative and a human resources manager who allegedly coached an illegal immigrant on how to apply for a job using a fake name and documents.

Ten years before, more than 140 people were arrested for immigration violations at the same plant. In the decade between, though, illegal immigrants were hiding in plain sight.

Since the police don’t enforce federal immigration laws, “if you were simply working or living here,” Walker says, “you felt pretty safe.”