Emilia Marroquin, left, and her team at SALUD, an organization that addresses health concerns for immigrant families, stand with their booth at an immigration forum in Storm Lake, Iowa, on Aug. 29. Marroquin is a naturalized citizen from El Salvador.Ronald Brownstein

STORM LAKE, IA—The huge gulf separating liberals and conservatives on the volatile issue of immigration was pointedly illustrated on Saturday during an afternoon forum in this picturesque lakefront community about two hours northwest of Des Moines.

During a panel discussion and subsequent conversation with Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee, two second-tier Democratic presidential hopefuls, supporters made the case for legalizing undocumented immigrants behind arguments of practicality, economic benefit, and, above all, compassion. “What immigration reform means is protecting dignity and respect,” said Monica Reyes, a college student brought to the U.S. illegally as a child by her family, just minutes into the session. “We have lived here for many, many years. This is our community; this is our home.”

By contrast, conservative activist Tamara Scott, the panel’s sole strong opponent of legalizing the undocumented, repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining order and upholding the law. “It comes back to we either have law or we don’t,” said Scott, Iowa state director for the conservative group Concerned Women for America. “I find it a little ironic that people who now want legal protection ignored laws to get here.”

The forum underscored the unexpectedly complex backdrop Iowa’s first-in-the nation caucuses in February may present for the immigration debate rumbling through the 2016 presidential race, particularly as Donald Trump has surged to the lead in the GOP contest behind promises of a harsh crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

(Related Story: “Trump Preaching to Shrinking White Electorate Creates Problems for GOP”)

Though immigration has not been a central issue in local Iowa politics, attitudes about the growing racial diversity recasting this once monolithically white state could add an unpredictable new element to the presidential competition here.

The forum was part of the UniteIowa campaign launched by Kyle Munson, a Des Moines Register columnist, to encourage respectful dialogue on issues facing the state—particularly as campaigning heats up for the caucuses. Saturday’s session drew about 300 people to an auditorium at Buena Vista University.

All of the state’s population growth has come among racial minorities. Since 2000, Latinos have nearly doubled in number to almost 158,000. The number of Asians and African-Americans in the state has each increased by about half. The three groups now combine for nearly 11 percent of the state’s population, up from about 6 percent in 2000.

Many of those in the room worked for religious, public health or social welfare organizations responding to the demographic transition steadily reshaping the state. Census Bureau figures show that since 2000, non-Hispanic whites have declined from about 93 percent of Iowa’s population to 88 percent. Over that time, the absolute number of whites living in Iowa has actually fallen by about 8,000.

All of the state’s population growth has come among racial minorities. Since 2000, Latinos have nearly doubled in number to almost 158,000. The number of Asians and African-Americans in the state has each increased by about half. The three groups now combine for nearly 11 percent of the state’s population, up from about 6 percent in 2000.

(Related Story: “46 States Saw Young White Population Decline”)

As in most places, the change has come even faster among the young, which points toward compounding change in the future. Since 2000, the number of Iowa whites younger than 20 has declined by over 88,000, according to calculations by demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Over the same period, the state has added nearly 77,000 children of color younger than 20. Non-white students now comprise a majority in the public schools in Des Moines, the state’s largest city.

The change has also been magnified in concentrated pockets of the state, where employers have attracted immigrant workers to fill local employment needs, often in the physically demanding meat packing industry. Storm Lake is one of those places.

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.

But those attitudes among Iowa Republicans may be shifting, amid a presidential campaign in which Trump and rivals—including Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee—are all promising a crackdown against not only undocumented, but in several cases, legal immigration as well. 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).

(Related Story: “Is Immigration A Poison Pill For Jeb Bush?”)

At the UniteIowa forum, Scott articulated many of the arguments energizing conservatives. When immigration attorney Kim Hunter argued that new migrants economically benefited the U.S. by allowing our labor force to remain younger than many international competitors, Scott fired back: “There are a lot of Americans looking for work.” And when most panelists dismissed Trump’s call for revoking birthright citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S., Scott insisted, “It’s a discussion we have to have.”

Generally, the session avoided overt references to the presidential race. But O’Malley, the former Maryland governor struggling to build support in the Democratic presidential contest, took a clear shot at Trump when he declared: “At all times when people are apprehensive about their economic future, it is easy for charlatans to scapegoat the ‘other.’” After the panel, Scott defended the GOP candidate, saying, “Donald Trump would not be resonating with independents, Democrats and Republicans…if there weren’t questions that people want answered.”

Like it or not, Iowa in the coming months seems destined to be a stage where those questions and answers will be hotly debated.

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