Once virtually all white, it has been transformed by waves of immigrants from Southeast Asia (beginning in the 1970s) and Mexico (starting in the 1990s), drawn to employment in the area’s two meat packing and one egg-processing plants. Just since 2000, non-Latino whites have fallen from more than four-fifths to just over three-fifths of the population in Buena Vista County (which includes Storm Lake), while Latinos (mostly from Mexico) have doubled from about one-in-eight to one-in-four residents. Kids of color now represent the clear majority of the local school system.
At times this transition has ignited tensions.
Patrick J. Buchanan held a rally in Storm Lake in 1996, during a presidential bid which struck many of the same conservative populist and anti-immigrant themes as Trump today. And a massive federal raid against undocumented workers at one of the local meat packing plants later that year split the community.
But in conversations at the forum, several Storm Lake residents said they felt it had largely outgrown any earlier friction. “As the kids have grown up together in the school system and the parents have worked together…I think the majority of people have been respectful of everybody and inclusive,” said Pam Bogue, the Buena Vista County administrator for public health, as she stood outside a booth for SALUD, an organization that addresses health concerns for immigrant families.
Emilia Marroquin, a naturalized citizen from El Salvador also at the SALUD booth, concurred. She moved to the area 15 years ago from Los Angeles, which she said she left after her husband witnessed a shooting. “At the time it was a shock,” said Marroquin, a community liaison for the local Head Start program. “But everybody was very welcoming.” Marroquin has two children in the local high schools, and says educators have supported their multi-cultural background. “They encourage the kids to speak Spanish at home,” she said. “They really support that being bilingual is a plus.” Now Marroquin is planning to seek election this fall as the first Latino member of the local school board.
Munson, the Register columnist who organized the forum, said the story of Iowa’s reaction to its immigrant influx and demographic change has largely followed the same trajectory, from concern to predominant acceptance. “There was more anxiety 10 to 15 years ago,” he said. “Now the conversation has generally shifted. Now the broad story is saying that rural communities are dying and…new waves of Iowans [immigrants] are reviving those towns.”
(Related Story: “How Latinos Are Saving Iowa”)
Not everyone in Iowa shares that perspective, as evidenced by the local popularity of Republican Rep. Steve King, perhaps the most implacable immigration critic in Congress, whose Western Iowa district encompasses Storm Lake. But until the presidential campaign, immigration had not played a large role in the state’s politics, and many Iowa GOP leaders have pursued a more moderate approach than many of their counterparts elsewhere.
In a late July NBC/Marist Poll, 56 percent of probable Republican Iowa caucus-goers said they were less likely to support a candidate who supported citizenship for the undocumented; about one-in-four Iowa Republicans picked immigration as their top or second-highest issue concern in the race (compared to just one-in-eight Democrats).
Long-time governor Terry Branstad, for instance, was one of the few GOP governors who did not join the Texas-led lawsuit that has blocked Obama’s executive action to provide legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. In a survey this spring by the Republican polling firm Burning Glass Consulting for a pro-immigration group, just 29 percent of Iowa Republicans said the undocumented should be deported, while nearly two-thirds said that after meeting requirements and paying fines they should be allowed to obtain either citizenship or legal status.