Two decades after he left his native Mexico and eight years after he moved to Iowa, Jose Castillo is tired of being a scapegoat.
“We are not terrorists,” he said. “We are not murderers. We are not bad people. A lot of innocent people are being blamed for things just because they’re Mexican.”
Castillo, a parish worker at St. Mary’s Catholic Church who says he came to America legally, personifies a demographic earthquake that is reshaping Iowa’s culture and politics and shaking up the presidential campaign.
Hundreds of miles from the Mexican border, Iowans find themselves on the front line of the bruising national debate over immigration policy.
Running hard toward next week’s kickoff presidential caucuses, candidates, especially the Republicans, have seized upon the issue to energize their supporters.
“A country that can’t protect its own borders cannot remain a sovereign nation,” former Sen. Fred Thompson told supporters Thursday at a rally in suburban Des Moines. “We have to stop illegal immigration!”
The battle cry was greeted with thunderous applause.
Numbers help explain why immigration has become such a provocative issue in Iowa. A state that historically was nearly all white now has a Hispanic population of more than 115,000, an increase of more than one-third during the first half of this decade. As many as half of those people came illegally, according to the state’s Division of Latino Affairs.
‘The whole town is here’
The shift is even more pronounced in a handful of small cities such as Marshalltown, where industrial jobs, particularly in meatpacking plants, have been a powerful magnet for immigrants. During the 1990s, the city’s Hispanic population increased more than tenfold. Hispanics today make up more than 12 percent of the town.
“When I moved here, there were maybe three other Hispanic families,” said Francesca Fernandez, who moved there 24 years ago. “Then a neighbor moved, or a friend, or a relative. . . Suddenly, it was like the whole town is here.”
Life is mostly harmonious—“the white and Hispanic people, they live together, no harassment,” Fernandez said. But the community was deeply shaken by a raid last December at the Swift packing plant, one of several in states, including Minnesota, where officials arrested hundreds of illegal workers.
“Since then, a lot of people have left for other states,” Fernandez said. “Now, sometimes, I feel like I’m half-Hispanic, half-American.”
“Ever since the raid, a lot of Hispanics here are very afraid,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t have a problem with them. Sure, there’s riff-raff, but that’s just people.
“Candidates like [Mitt] Romney want to ship all of them out, but that’d be a phenomenal shock to our economy. To run a business anymore, you pretty much have to be bilingual. You adapt or fall off.”
Getting the message
With political passions running so high, it is perhaps little wonder that Marshalltown, a city of 26,000 smack in the center of Iowa, has had no fewer than 24 visits by presidential candidates this year.
In general, the Republicans, including Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani, have taken a hard line on illegal immigration, opposing amnesty, guest worker programs and favoring the de facto sealing of America’s southern border.
The Democrats, for whom immigration has been a far less important issue, have taken a considerably more conciliatory stance as they’ve stumped across Iowa. The Democrats’ most visible efforts in Marshalltown are Spanish-language campaign brochures found in Hispanic businesses.
A University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll conducted in October found that among Iowans likely to attend the Jan. 3 precinct caucuses, 66 percent of Republicans rated illegal immigration as the top issue, as compared with 35 percent of Democrats.
So Arizona Sen. John McCain found himself viewed as something of a heretic in West Des Moines on Thursday.
Back in Marshalltown, the day before, as he shoveled snow off the steps of St. Mary’s, Castillo was fuming. “I wish people would stop discriminating against people who are just trying to help their families at home in other countries,” he said. “We’re trying to work hard. We have rights, too, right?”