How Iowa’s Population Mix Might Scramble its High-Stakes Caucuses

UT Dallas_tex_orangeBy Ronald Brownstein

Iowa will be a litmus test on immigration when voters caucus in February. But the debate is already sharpening.

FullSizeRender-1-1STORM LAKE, Iowa—The gulf sep­ar­at­ing lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives on the volat­ile is­sue of im­mig­ra­tion some­how seemed even wider be­cause their dis­agree­ments were ex­pressed so po­litely dur­ing an af­ter­noon for­um on Sat­urday in this pic­tur­esque lake­front com­munity about two hours North­w­est of Des Moines.

Even without the in­flam­mat­ory rhet­or­ic about im­mig­ra­tion now roil­ing the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign rol­lick­ing through the state, the con­ver­sa­tion cap­tured the for­mid­able dis­tance between the per­spect­ives and pri­or­it­ies of the two sides in the de­bate.

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 United States 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.

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.

LIfe 2x 3The 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. ”

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.

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 meat­pack­ing 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 meat­pack­ing 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 that 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 meat­pack­ing 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 mul­ti­cul­tur­al 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.”

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).

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.

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media’s Editorial Director for Strategic Partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal.  @RonBrownstein


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