Iowa town warms to influx of immigrants

Marketplace Staff Aug 2, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It was field-trip day for some people who work on Capitol Hill. Members of the House Judiciary committee were in San Diego. They were talking about the impact of immigration on social services. The Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, was in Arizona looking at border security. If lawmakers want get another view, they might consider heading inland a bit. To a place like Denison, Iowa, 1,200 miles from the Mexican border. From public television’s Nightly Business Report, Darren Gersh has the story.

DARREN GERSH: That hamburger you had for lunch and those pork chops waiting in the fridge? It most likely came from a meatpacking town very much like Denison, Iowa.

Farmland Foods General Manager Todd Gerken takes me on a tour of the cutting room floor where they process more than 900 tons of pork everyday.

TODD GERKEN: We position the carcass to cut the ham off. Then we cut the jowl off, then we cut the shoulder off. . . .

When Gerken says “we” he means immigrants mostly.

GERKEN: Ten years ago we had 27 percent Hispanic. Five years ago, I believe, it was 40 percent, 41 percent.

Today 60 percent of the 1,500 workers here are immigrants. The constant inflow of new labor allows Farmland to expand its exports. Back in the office, Gerken tells me the plant has begun processing pig stomachs, a delicacy in China.

GERKEN: We’re able to start more production lines and, in turn, produce more products for our customers.

Ten years ago, like so many small towns in this country, Denison was in steady decline. The kids moved away, the population got old, and Wal-Mart sucked business out of downtown.

But Mayor Nathan Mahrt says then the immigrants starting coming, looking for work in the meatpacking plants. Mahrt believes the town’s comeback is largely thanks to Latino immigrants who now make up one-quarter of Denison’s population.

NATHAN MAHRT: It’s just been a whirlwind of vitality and young people again.

Luis Navar left Mexico in 1985 and came to the United States illegally like so many others have done. He found his way to Denison’s meatpacking plants and quickly switched to remodeling homes. Today Navar is a citizen and he’s done so well he’s investing $15,000 of his own money to renovate this downtown office building.

LUIS NAVAR: It’s all mine. I can take care of it. This is what I do. I’ve been doing this since I was 18 years old, so . . .

Navar says other Latinos are doing much the same thing, bringing not just their labor, but their cash to downtown Denison.

LUIS NAVAR: Who’s buying? Americans are buying, but Latinos are buying too. We’re part of the success of Denison.

Navar is excited to be restoring a building that once housed the office belonging to the brother of actress Donna Reed. Reed was born in Denison and in honor of her most famous role, the city has adopted the slogan: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But this is not quite Hollywood.

NAVAR: I worked my way up. It was not easy. I had a lot of fights and I’ve been insulted many times. But many of the Latinos in town have been accepted because they demonstrate they can work, they can do better.

Some will never get used to the idea of a taqueria next to the American Legion Hall. They worry about crowding, culture shock and crime.

Ed Schau recently sold his shoe repair shop to a Latino businessman. He says immigration is, in many ways, a generational issue.

ED SCHAU: If older people will go along with it a little better, why, the younger people would get along with it a lot better. But some of the older people have their older ways. That seems to reflect on the younger people.

Mayor Mahrt says he believes most of the people in his town have been won over by immigrants, who are helping Denison do better.

MAHRT: We need to build a new school. We need to build a lot of housing. Those are good problems. Those are problems I want to have because the other way is a lot worse.

In Denison, I’m Darren Gersh for Marketplace.

KAI RYSSDAL: Immigration policy might be on the road, but there was still plenty happening back home in Washington. The Senate voted this afternoon to spend almost $2 billion for a fence along the Mexican border. The vote as 94 to 3 for 370 miles of fence. It’s attached to a defense authorization bill that’s expected to pass later this week.

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