|A farmer in Hull, Iowa. (Melina Mara/ The Washington Post)|
Art Cullen is the editor of the Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa. He also recently wrote the book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.
President Trump argues that keeping immigrants and refugees out of our country is a matter of vital national security. He has made it his campaign thesis and shut down the government over it. Here in Storm Lake, Iowa, where the population is about 15,000 and unemployment is under 2 percent, Asians and Africans and Latinos are our lifeline. The only threat they pose to us is if they weren’t here.
That’s been the case for years all over rural Iowa and southern Minnesota, in the heart of the Corn Belt, where anyone who wants a job cutting hogs or laying block or working as an orderly can get one.
One part of the rural condition in American today is that, after college, our young people go to Des Moines or some city beyond for a job in finance or engineering that simply doesn’t exist in the old, county-seat towns of 5,000 people. “Everybody has to go someplace else,” Iowa State University regional trade economist Dave Swenson says of the youth exodus. “There isn’t a Plan B or Plan C.”
As rural counties are drained of young people with higher educations, immigrants flow into the vacuum. The influx began 40 years ago and continues today. First, Laotians from Thai refugee camps (they fought alongside us in Vietnam) came to Iowa in the 1980s. A land debt crisis later that decade blew up the family farm and foreclosed the future of so many young people and small businesses. The farm boys who once raised hogs by day and worked the night shift at the packing houses lit out for Texas and the oil rigs. Young Latino men, mainly from the Mexican state of Jalisco, came in to work the meatpackers’ kill floors. Now, the pigs are raised in huge confinement buildings, not family farms, and Latinos keep them clean.
So long as there is corn, there will be hogs and turkeys and eggs in Iowa. Somebody will have to do that work. Now, the Storm Lake Elementary School is 90 percent children of color, and about three-fourths of those are Hispanic — mainly from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. We could employ 500 more workers easily if we could find, and find housing for, them.
Without the newcomers we do have, Storm Lake would be half its current size. Next door, the population of Pocahontas County has been nearly halved since 1970; if the current trend continues, there will be nobody left to turn out the lights by 2050. We’re fortunate by comparison. Storm Lake grows its own welders, nurses and food processing machinists. A student who attends high school for five years can take vo-tech or college-prep classes through a unique, charter-school program involving the local high school, Iowa Central Community College and Buena Vista University. Those kids graduate with a training certificate or an Associate of Arts degree. Those students enter the workforce as teacher aides, machinists or certified nursing assistants. The pay is about $25 an hour.
The big agricultural processing companies will bid for low skills until there simply is no one left to bid for. The demand for meat cutters seems endless. Smaller towns run buses to Storm Lake to pick up immigrants for day work in those factories. They’ll pay you $18 an hour at Tyson to slice pork, plus a hefty signing bonus. The workforce is overwhelmingly immigrant, well over half Latino. Tyson insists they are all legal, yet we figure about a third of the immigrant community, in general, there might be without papers — who knows? If the meatpackers can’t find workers here, they will pick up shop and move somewhere else, like so many Iowa manufacturers before them.
In keenest demand here are health-care workers — orderlies, nursing assistants, and cafeteria workers to toil for about $12 to $15 an hour in one of Iowa’s largest industries: nursing homes. Iowa has more than 510,000 residents over the age of 65. The average age of an Iowa farmer is 63.
The need for workers has made it hard for those who can’t find them to stay in business. Masonry contractor Steve Tate has decided at age 63 to wind things down. “If I were 20 years younger, I’d stick my neck out,” said Tate. “But even when jobs are out there to bid now, I don’t know how I could bid them if I didn’t know I could get reliable help.”
Storm Lake’s crime rate last year reached a 27-year low. It is more diverse than ever. Some 30 languages or dialects are spoken here. But the community knows it will wither up and blow away without its young people. Like it or not, legal or not, our young people are predominantly Latino. If there is to be a wall, there will have to be a door for immigrants to find their way here as the better-educated leave for the brighter lights and greener urban pastures.