AMES, Iowa -- In many parts of the country, the idea that all illegal immigrants should be arrested and deported is popular, but in the wake of the Postville and Marshalltown raids, perhaps the solution isn’t as simple as it may seem.
If this plan were enacted, there would be serious social and economic impacts in many communities across the nation, according to Liesl Eathington, coordinator of Iowa State University’s Regional Capacity Analysis Program (ReCAP).
“I think there is a misconception in many communities that these immigrants are taking American dollars and sending it all back home,” Eathington said. “This really isn’t the case, because these people still pay sales taxes, rent and buy food. In some towns, they make up a significant percent of revenue that goes back into the community.”
This feeling of mistrust and fear has an impact on legal immigrants in addition to the undocumented workers.
“The legal immigrants become afraid of the negative attitude of the town and don’t feel welcome. This means they are less likely to invest in the community by starting businesses and buying locally. With some of these smaller towns that have less diverse commercial districts, this can mean a significant economic impact,” Eathington said.
According to ReCAP statistics, 114,700 Hispanics, 3.8 percent of Iowa’s population, are legal immigrants. However, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 55 to 85 thousand illegal immigrants currently reside in the state.
A change in the Midwest meatpacking industry is partly to blame for the rapid influx in undocumented workers, according to Eathington. Increased machination and technology led to fewer and lower-paying jobs so that legal workers looked for better work elsewhere. This opened up opportunities for businesses to hire illegal workers who had no choice but to accept the pay and conditions given them.
Another reason for an increasing immigrant population in Iowa is the appeal of small towns. Many workers lived in small towns in their home countries and feel safer than they do in large cities.
“People learn of these small-town meatpacking plants from word-of-mouth and travel here for better opportunities,” said Jenny Horner, director of the Southwest Iowa Latino Resource Center. “They come from small towns and just feel more [comfortable]. Even so, there is a sense of fear among the immigrants and their employers. They don’t want to be exposed and punished.”
Horner believes that the focus on identity theft diverts attention from larger immigration issues.
“Instead of actual immigration reform, we keep the same policies that allow illegal activity, but only punish the people rather than the system,” Horner said. “We need an easier process to petition for workers so they can address their status. They should be able to work for their citizenship. We shouldn’t just hand them legal status, but there needs to be a way to gain citizenship.”
Even after the workers have been jailed and deported, the impact is still felt throughout communities.
Horner said, “This will affect a town like Postville and hundreds of families in and around the town. By removing so many people, it affects local businesses, schools and health services in a negative way.”
Laura Sternweis, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-0775, firstname.lastname@example.org