Immigration: The Non-issue in the Iowa Midterms

Immigration: The Non-issue in the Iowa Midterms

by Paul Deaton

Crimes should be prosecuted, but living in peace with our neighbors is no crime.

Whether undocumented immigrants living in Iowa are an issue in the 2010 midterms is an open question. During debates, forums and editorial board meetings, members of the media raise the issue, but the questions almost always fall flat. The candidate responses have been middle of the road, safe and uncontroversial. Iowans seem more concerned about their economic future than about who is cleaning motel rooms, roofing their house or picking the melon served for breakfast.

Ever since former Colorado Congressman and presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo made immigration reform part of his Iowa campaign, there has been turbulence, but no real storm. In the spring of 2007, at places like the Johnson County Republicans' Spaghetti Supper in Iowa City and the Hawkeye Downs gun show in Cedar Rapids, Tancredo used the phrase “no amnesty” to represent the way to handle residents who entered the United States illegally. The usage gained currency then, but when Senator Chuck Grassley uses the same phrase today, it serves as a lightning rod to gain a brief amount of attention when most Iowans clearly are not engaged.

At this week's debate between the major gubernatorial candidates at Coe College, it was a point of agreement between Governor Chet Culver and challenger Terry Branstad that enforcement of immigration law was a federal responsibility. Perhaps the state of Iowa does not have resources to enforce federal immigration law. More likely, Iowans are just not engaged in the notion that the presence of undocumented immigrants in Iowa is a substantive issue. It also seems unlikely that the partisan gang of 435 U.S. house members and 100 senators will take up immigration reform in a lame duck session or in the 112th Congress.

Immigration rose to the surface as an Iowa issue after the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa on May 12, 2008. 389 immigrants were arrested that day, about 300 students were absent from school and lives were disrupted throughout the small community. It is a two sided problem. Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA) said at the time, “until we enforce our immigration laws equally against both employers and employees who break the law, we will continue to have a problem.” Neither the government nor most of the politicians running for office this year have the will to do both. The storm of Postville has passed, and like the aftermath of the December 2006 immigration raid on Marshalltown, foreign workers have returned to staff the meatpacking plant operations and the community is repairing the damage.

Some candidates for office talk about securing “all four of our borders.” This language presumes that only the lower 48 states need securement and like most conservative language on immigration reform, serves a limited, “what's in it for me” perspective and offers no viable solution. When we think about it, the conservative notion of “finishing the fence” along the southern U.S. border seems quite like the idea China had to build the great wall to keep intruders out. An unintended consequence of the Great Wall of China was to keep innovation out and we should learn from that.

The reality of undocumented immigrants present in Iowa is that the “crime” of illegal entry becomes an issue only when it is associated with other crimes. While prosecuting the crime of illegal entry would create a number of new jobs in law enforcement, the will to expand the government payroll does not exist. What does exist is a need for tolerance of the people with whom we live, regardless of immigration status. Crimes should be prosecuted, but living in peace with our neighbors is no crime.

As time goes by, undocumented immigrants increasingly become part of the fabric of Iowa culture, part of a status quo that is more accepted than not. More of value to our economy than a problem to be addressed. Perhaps this is why immigration reform has not been a substantive campaign issue in 2010.

Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County and weekend
editor of Blog for Iowa.
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