Iowa town a symbol of painful immigration pressure
Associated Press
September 2, 2007


Feds have twice swooped down on Swift workers

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa 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 by immigration stands as a symbol of the agonizing 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."

As the latest crop of presidential candidates crisscrosses Iowa, their speeches bristling 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, 29, 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 father of two young sons, he is fighting deportation. "I'm not a bad guy," Vargas says, sitting 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. "

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 now 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.

Several times, town leaders have joined Grey, the professor, to travel to Villachuato, a poor farming village, home of many of Marshalltown's immigrants.

"I wanted them to understand the economic conditions that drive people out of Mexico," says Grey. Houses with dirt floors, unpaved roads and people desperate for work provided compelling evidence.

No one knows how many of Marshalltown's immigrants are here illegally but from the beginning, the town has tried to ease the way for newcomers. Several years ago, police helped produce a video in Spanish that explained everything from tornado sirens to parking laws.

As the Hispanic population has grown, 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.

Elizabeth Castellanos, who is 9, fears she'll have to leave Iowa because her father may be deported. "This is the place I was born and this is the place I belong," she says.

Elizabeth and her mother sought help at St. Mary's Catholic Church, which has a large Hispanic flock. "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, Hispanic ministry director. "There also was the pressure of families in Mexico counting on the workers to send them money."

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