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Iowa town caught in the squeeze of immigration wars: Someone is going to be gored
The Immigration Squ 5895341
Francisco Vargas Acosta talks about his life and his future during an interview, June 5, 2007, in Marshalltown, Iowa. Vargas, an illegal immigrant with two sons, wonders if the family life he built over a decade will disappear in the face of immigration crackdowns. - photo by Associated Press
    EDITOR’S NOTE — Labor Day 2007 comes during a period of high-pitched debate about an increasingly visible segment of the work force — illegal immigrants. But when an influx of immigrant workers and their families, legal and not, revives a fading town and creates new relationships, the discussion gets more complicated. Here’s a look at one such community.

    MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa (AP) — Everyone knew they were there, doing dirty and dangerous work in the massive meatpacking plant. They had come a long way — more than 1,000 miles, from impoverished rural Mexico to the lush corn country of the Midwest. Some folks 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 agonizing predicaments and pressures faced by many communities today.
    ‘‘You’re caught in the middle,’’ says Mayor Gene Beach. ‘‘It’s a matter of enforcing the immigration laws while recognizing families are trying to improve their life. 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 soccer coach who harbored a secret. 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 blistering with catch phrases about the border, Marshalltown is confronting the real-life consequences of 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 young sons, he is fighting deportation.
    ‘‘I’m not a bad guy,’’ Vargas says, sitting on a sofa in his living room decorated with family photos and porcelain knickknacks. ‘‘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. That’s great,’’ he says. ‘‘But you can’t commit a crime to make that happen. That’s where we have to draw the line.’’
    Marshalltown finds itself squeezed by both sides in the immigration divide.
    The town can’t ignore the presence of illegal immigrants — whether it’s the raids or the cases that pile up on Zuercher’s desk that involve people who cross the border and buy or use stolen identities to land jobs.
    And the town can’t thrive without immigrants. The dramatic growth in the Hispanic population — from a few hundred in 1990 to perhaps as much as 20 percent of the 26,000 residents — has pumped new blood into 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. ‘‘They can wax nostalgic for the good old days, but the good old days are gone.’’
    Marshalltown still has the Ben Franklin on Main Street, the Fourth of July celebrations, the cozy Maid-Rite diner, the grand 19th-century courthouse, places and events that define small-town America.
    But life on this Grant Wood landscape also has been shaped by new sights and sounds: Bilingual signs in groceries and banks. Spanish-language Masses. Students learning Spanish and English. A Latinos Unidos soccer league. An annual Hispanic Heritage festival.
    Not everyone likes these changes, but Marshalltown hasn’t followed the path of communities that have tried to punish landlords or businesses that associate with illegal immigrants.
    It has, instead, tried to learn why people come here. Several times, town leaders have signed on to join Grey, the professor, to travel to Villachuato, a dusty, poor farming village in Mexico that is the source of many of Marshalltown’s immigrants.
    ‘‘I wanted them to understand the economic conditions that drive people out of Mexico,’’ says Grey, director of the Iowa Center for Immigration Leadership and Integration.
    Houses with dirt floors (and without electricity), unpaved roads and people desperate for work all provided compelling evidence. But the trip also revealed something else to Walker, the police chief, as he questioned villagers:
    ‘‘I said, ‘How many of you have been to Marshalltown?’ All the hands went up,’’ he says. ‘‘‘How many of you did it legally?’ All the hands went down.’’
    No one knows how many immigrants are here illegally, but Marshalltown is in the same bind as many other rural communities across the heartland — especially those with meatpacking plants where high turnover creates a constant demand for labor.
    It’s a story of survival — on both sides of the border.
    Marshalltown wants workers for its jobs, buyers for its homes, children for its schools. The Mexican immigrants want a better life, period. And if it means paying someone to sneak across the border, making a treacherous journey, and risking arrest, so be it.
    Not everyone, of course, comes here illegally, and Marshalltown has taken steps to smooth the way. Several years ago, the police helped produce a video in Spanish that explained everything from tornado sirens to parking laws. It also included a warning: Police don’t take bribes.
    Many of the early racial tensions have faded — Walker says he no longer gets calls asking, ‘‘What are you going to do about the Mexican problem?’’ — 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’s that element of fear on both sides.’’
    But there has also been a growing acceptance as the first wave of immigrants — young, mostly single men who worked at Swift, 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 restaurants, groceries and dozens of other businesses.
    ‘‘When you have any minority community come in ... there’s going to be a learning curve,’’ says Mike Schlesinger, publisher of the Marshalltown Times-Republican. ‘‘That rapidly escalated when families came in.’’
    A decade ago, Schlesinger had to abandon a Spanish-language newspaper because it couldn’t get Anglo advertisers. But several months ago, a new version, Voz, started publishing.
    Still, a cultural divide remains and no one sees that more clearly than the police. Walker says there’s a ‘‘basic mistrust’’ of law enforcement among many Mexican immigrants. It doesn’t help that the force has no Hispanic officers — despite recruitment efforts — or anyone fluent in Spanish.
    These suspicions can be an obstacle, as Zuercher discovered while working a troubling case last year.
    A young Hispanic man was struck and killed by a car. His wife flagged down a ride and 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.
    ‘‘That just scares me — a human being was struck by a car in front of a young child, his wife and other bystanders — and they leave the scene,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t understand it.’’
    The immigrants, needing identification, often engage in identity theft; in fact, when authorities raided the Swift plant last winter, several workers were accused of identity theft or fraud.
    Such cases are time consuming and frustrating, Zuercher says: One man called from California wanting to know how he could owe back taxes on wages earned in Marshalltown when he’d never been here. In another, someone in town had used the same name and Social Security number as six or seven other people around the country.
    Not long ago, Zuercher arrested a longtime Marshalltown resident for having a bogus ID. ‘‘Do you realize,’’ a colleague asked, ‘‘you just arrested our kid’s soccer coach?’’
    It doesn’t matter how long someone has lived here, he says, or whether he has a house, a family or a job.
    ‘‘We can’t pick and choose,’’ he says. ‘‘I can’t turn a blind eye.’’
    Neither can his fellow townspeople, anymore.
    Last year, dozens of high school students, most of them Hispanic, walked out of school to protest a proposed law that would make it harder for illegal immigrants to work in the country, and pro- and anti-immigration crowds rallied at Marshalltown’s courthouse.
    When Armando Torres passed by, he says some protesters screamed at him to go back to Mexico.
    ‘‘They don’t know if you’re legal or not,’’ says Torres, an American citizen. ‘‘You feel bad, you go home and you try to forget about it.’’
    At the factory where he works, he says, someone tacked up a letter on a bulletin board, comparing illegal immigrants to dirty birds who multiply and wreak havoc.
    ‘‘I understand that a lot of people are working without papers, breaking the law,’’ he adds. ‘‘Can they tell me how many Americans break the law?’’
    Illegal immigrants are not stealing, he says. ‘‘They’re trying to work and feed their families.’’
    Some of those families end up in a bind. Elizabeth Castellanos, who is 9, fears she’ll have to leave Iowa because her father, who is being held in Colorado, is facing deportation. ‘‘This is the place I was born and this is the place I belong,’’ she says. ‘‘I don’t want to leave to go to Mexico. I wouldn’t feel comfortable there.’’
    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.
    ‘‘People were wondering, ’How are we going to feed our families because the breadwinner was gone or the job was gone,’’’ says Sister Christine Feagan, director of the church’s Hispanic ministry. ‘‘There also was the pressure of families in Mexico who were counting on the workers to send them money.’’
    More than $100,000 in donations poured in to help the families, most of them from elsewhere in Iowa and the country.
    After the December raid — one of six at Swift plants across the country — 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.
    These were not the first such raids. 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, you felt pretty safe,’’ Walker says.
    That ended last December for Francisco Vargas Acosta.
    He wasn’t surprised when federal agents raided the plant. He had heard rumors. But he had no choice, he says: He needed the work — he earned $13.25 an hour — to help support his family.
    His lawyers are trying to get him a work permit under a special program open to those who’ve lived here 10 years consecutively. They are also fighting his deportation, arguing it would create a hardship on his family.
    ‘‘He’s been working hard,’’ says Megan Lantz, one of his lawyers, noting that his wife, also a Swift employee, is a legal resident. ‘‘Are we really the type of place that wants to prohibit them from being together?’’
    For Vargas, this place has been home nearly half his life. He followed family here, attended school briefly and now has a house where he and his wife want to raise their sons.
    He waits now to see if that will happen.

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