Donald Trump will depend on support from disengaged voters and disgruntled Democrats to win Iowa.
To Sue Downey, the side effects of America’s broken immigration system became plainly visible at a Des Moines restaurant.
She was on a recent trip to the city trying to order a meal, but the staff, all of whom she said were Hispanic, couldn’t communicate with her. The same thing happened, she said, at a McDonald’s in upstate New York while attending her husband’s West Point reunion.
“There wasn’t even one person who spoke English,” she said. “We couldn’t even place an order.”
Downey is drawn to Republican nominee Donald Trump in no small part because of his hard-line stance on immigration. A 78-year-old retiree from Iowa’s energy assistance office, she worries illegal immigrants pose an existential threat to the nation, taking jobs from willing Americans, increasing costs of social service programs and overburdening the health care system.
“I love the Statue of Liberty and the welcoming arms, but enough is enough,” said Downey of Pleasant Hill. “We can’t house the whole world.”
She’s clearly not alone.
Trump’s talk of building a massive border wall, kicking out the undocumented and instituting more rigorous vetting for potential immigrants helped fuel his early success in caucuses and primaries.
“Build the wall,” remains a favorite chant at Trump rallies in Iowa and across the country.
In late August, Trump shared a Des Moines stage with the family of Sarah Root, a 21-year-old Council Bluffs woman who was killed in a vehicle crash allegedly caused by an illegal immigrant.
“These international gangs of thugs and drug cartels will be — I promise you, from the first day in office, the first thing I’m going to do, the first piece of paper that I’m going to sign is — we’re going to get rid of these people, Day 1, before the wall, before anything,” he said at U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s second annual Roast and Ride fundraiser at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump welcomes the family of Sarah Root, who was killed by immigrant in the United States illegally, onto the stage at Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride Aug. 27, 2016. The Register
Many experts say immigration has benefited Iowa. Minorities, including many immigrants, accounted for all of Iowa’s population growth between 2000 and 2010.
But Trump’s tough talk on immigration appears to have paid off in the state. Forty-eight percent of residents in the most recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll said the Republican nominee would do a better job fixing the county’s immigration system than Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton — higher than Clinton’s 45 percent.
Kedron Bardwell, a professor of political science and department chair at Simpson College, said much of the nation’s immigration angst stems from discomfort over an increasingly diverse and changing society. Debates about crime, terrorism and race relations only fan those flames.
“Immigration is a very tangible policy issue that’s an expression of the discomfort that white America has with an increasingly multicultural world,” Bardwell said.
Brytani Cavil of Des Moines chants “Black Lives Matter” into a megaphone Friday, Aug. 5, 2016, during a protest outside of a rally for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines.
‘We’re going to be a Third World country’
Many of Trump’s backers say they see immigration as a menacing threat.
“I think eventually, if it continues, we’re going to be a Third World country,” Ken Johannsen, a retired Storm Lake surgeon, said. “In some respects, that’s already happening. The culture is changing dramatically, in my opinion, from what it was say 40, 50, 60 years ago.”
Drawn to the area for work in meatpacking plants and other industries, Hispanics now represent about a quarter of Storm Lake’s population — a marked difference compared with Iowa’s overall population, which is about 6 percent Hispanic.
An early October Iowa Poll found Trump leading Clinton in Iowa by four points.
Johannsen, a Republican who plans to vote for Trump, said Storm Lake is an exception in Iowa, but he believes it has reached a tipping point with its population.
“There’s a point where it gets to be too much,” he said. “If we’re going to have a country that we like and want to live in, we have to preserve some of the traditions we cherish.”
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wait in the front row Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, hours before a campaign rally begins at McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids. (Photo: Michael Zamora/The Register)
Gary Lebeck, the sole proprietor of a West Des Moines insurance company and a Trump supporter, said immigration is one of his most important issues this election. The registered Republican said he worries about the costs of providing education and medical care to the undocumented.
He is dismayed at so-called sanctuary cities, which refuse to use local resources and police to enforce immigration laws. And he blames President Barack Obama for not enforcing those laws.
“He said he was going to transform this country,” Lebeck said. “He’s been a complete superstar in doing that. They say it will get worse under Hillary. I don’t see how it could get any worse.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, at a campaign rally at McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids. Michael Zamora/The Register
‘Damage has already been done’
Latino activists say Trump’s rhetoric already has made things worse for them by worsening attitudes toward Latinos.
“Clearly the worst elements of what a Trump presidency could do has already happened to our community,” said Joe Henry, former Iowa director and current national vice president of the Midwest region for League of United Latin American Citizens.
He said the group has been working furiously to educate and register Latinos to vote. LULAC estimated Iowa was home to about 23,000 registered Latino voters in 2008, Henry said.
Now, LULAC puts that figure double at 50,000 people. The Iowa Secretary of State’s office does not track voter registrations by race or ethnicity.
Trump outraged many in July 2015 when he said Mexico was “not sending their best” across the Southern U.S. border.
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime,” he said. “They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Henry said Trump’s attacks on immigrants amount to an attack on all Latinos, who are being scapegoated for a the nation’s economic and social problems.
In Iowa, Latinos continue to face discrimination, particularly in rural areas, he said.
He pointed to a February high school basketball game in which Dallas Center-Grimes fans chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” at their Perry High School opponents. The chanting was immediately interpreted as an anti-immigrant screed (None of Perry’s varsity ball players are Latino, although nearly half the student body is).
“The damage has already been done to a certain extent,” Henry said. “It has created a fear where, in reality, there’s nothing to substantiate that fear.”
Immigrants fuel Iowa economy
In reality, experts say immigrants have helped fill crucial openings for both low- and high-skilled positions in Iowa.
Census counts of whites in Iowa dropped by more than 9,000 from 2000 to 2010, while Hispanics (who can be of any race) grew by nearly 70,000 people.
Immigration is often blamed for sinking wages in fields such as food production and construction. But Iowa State University Economist Dave Swenson said other factors drove drastic changes in the meatpacking industry in the 1980s, as unions were busted and wages sank during the farm crisis.
Eventually, only immigrant workers would accept such conditions. He said the same happened in construction: Skilled native workers were difficult to find, and the industry turned to immigrant labor during the commercial boom of the last decade.
“There was a reason for the surge in Mexican migrants — labor demand in some industries grew faster than the native labor supply in those areas,” he said.
While it’s well known that immigrants fill many low-skilled positions, Swenson said they also help fill gaps in medical, engineering and other high-skilled fields.
Foreign-born Iowans hold advanced degrees at higher rates than native-born Iowans. Conversely, foreign-born Iowans also graduate high school at lower rates than native-born Iowans.
In July 2015, an estimated 178,620 Latinos lived in Iowa, according to the State Data Center. Roughly one-third were foreign born.
“Too many people assume that when you see an immigrant, they are undocumented. And that’s just profound ignorance,” Swenson said. “We have this incredible affinity for stereotyping anybody who’s brown in rural Iowa and calling them illegal aliens.”
Trump’s plans ‘oversimplified and sound-bited’
The Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group seeking comprehensive immigration reform, estimates about 41,800 undocumented immigrants live in Iowa, about 1.4 percent of the population.
Yet even in Iowa, not many see mass deportations as a realistic solution to illegal immigration, said John Stineman, a Republican consultant who works with the partnership.
“It might play well to an element of his base,” Stineman said. “But it’s not a broadly held opinion that we’re going to deport all these people. But it is an issue that unfortunately plays well to being oversimplified and sound-bited.”
Stineman said 40 percent of illegal immigrants are in the country on overstayed visas — just one sign that fixing the immigration system is more complex than building a wall.
‘The process is awful’
The partnership’s 2014 study estimated that Iowa would see an additional $130 million in annual payroll if its non-citizens were granted a path to naturalization.
“I don’t interface with anybody that isn’t in favor of having border security,” he said. “But equally important is having a modernized visa system that allows us to track people that visit America. We don’t really have that today.”
Mark Lundberg, the 58-year-old chairman of the Sioux County Republican Party, said the country’s immigration system is “all screwed up.” In northwest Iowa, employers sometimes wait months for immigration paperwork to make its way through the legal system.
“It’s costly. It’s a disaster,” he said. “It gets so overwhelming, they sometimes just give up. The process is awful.”
Lundberg, a financial adviser in Orange City, doesn’t see mass deportations as a realistic proposition. But he can’t swallow a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
He knows Trump’s rhetoric can be controversial, but he believes that the Republican nominee is more likely to enact top-to-bottom immigration reform than Clinton.
“We ought to have a way of vetting people, and if somebody wants to come in our country and be a valid part of our economic process and society and we have a job for them, we ought to be able to get those folks here in an easy manner,” he said. “But crawling across a river or a fence is not a way of vetting people.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tells his supporters that Hillary Clinton’s latests FBI investigation is the “biggest political scandal since Watergate” during his campaign rally in Cedar Rapids.