Fear of foreigners roils Iowa

Angry rural voters voicing far-fetched theories

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / December 23, 2007

IOWA FALLS, Iowa - Iowa Falls was once a place where people spent their whole lives. Fathers worked on the Rocket, the Super Diesel train that changed lines here. Mothers took their children to the Estes Park bandstand for free concerts. Sweethearts came together at Friday night dances in the Alden Legion Hall.

After World War II, the world began pressing in. Mechanization meant that farmers who once supported themselves on 80 acres needed 800. Passenger trains stopped running. Children went off to college and never returned.

People in Iowa Falls and hundreds of other prairie towns fought to keep their communities alive. The strains of those decades have left them with a built-in fear of new economic threats, from bank mergers to meat-plant closings. And now those fears are reverberating through the 2008 presidential contest.

Rural Iowa voters of both parties, in the days approaching their caucuses on Jan. 3, are fixated on foreigners who take away jobs. For many Democrats, the issue is free-trade deals. For many Republicans, the focus of frustration is illegal immigration.

In fact, there have been few, if any, jobs lost to global competitors in Iowa Falls. There are also few, if any, illegal immigrants living here. But while farmers have had a good year, the memories of past upheavals have made people fearful of change. And the issues of global trade and immigration have provoked an intense emotional response that has caught many presidential campaigns by surprise.

It was here, in November, at a restaurant called Camp David, that residents peppered Senator John McCain of Arizona with questions about his view of illegal immigrants. One woman said she'd heard that Mexicans were flying their flag above the Star Spangled Banner and that children of illegal immigrants refused to sing the same kindergarten songs as American children. After quietly refuting the woman's claims, McCain offered that he had never seen such emotion over a political issue. Strong feelings about illegal immigration are still palpable in Iowa Falls, and even far-fetched theories about illegal immigrants get passed from person to person.

"They come over and they even get a tax break," Jane Vetter, who works at Pizza Ranch, said. "Then they want to change our language over to Spanish and then our national anthem, they want to change that. It just upsets me. We work our butts off and don't get a tax break."

While Vetter is angry, David Krogh, the co-owner of Camp David, is sad. As a businessman he sees a need for low-wage workers and isn't as furious over illegal immigration as some of his neighbors. But he feels the loss of jobs to overseas competitors as a betrayal of his deepest values.

On Wednesday, he drove more than 100 miles to attend an auction at the Maytag washing-machine plant in Newton, Iowa, that was closed by its new owners last year.

"It just made me ache," Krogh said. "I saw people standing in the spots where they worked for decades in jobs they never, ever thought they'd lose. And now they're cutting it up for steel. And that NAFTA is a big part of it."

In fact, Whirlpool, the American company that bought Maytag, makes washers in Ohio and other places in the United States; the jobs from Newton were not moved to Mexico. Likewise, the tax breaks for illegal immigrants that enrage Vetter don't exist; most illegal immigrants pay full taxes, even if they don't file income-tax returns.

But even those people in Iowa Falls who know the facts, like Krogh, believe that there's a crude logic at work in both issues. Global competition has indeed put pressure on companies such as Whirlpool to trim manufacturing costs. And despite being almost as far from a border as any state, Iowa has been touched by illegal immigration. Twice in the past year, federal agents have raided the Swift pork-processing plant in Marshalltown - about an hour from Iowa Falls - and arrested more than 100 undocumented workers.

Still, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories in Iowa Falls, fueled by word of mouth and even some ads from presidential candidates. Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, is running a radio spot vowing to stop the "North American Alliance," a term often used by conspiracy theorists for what would happen if there were no borders with Canada or Mexico.

Even mainstream candidates such as Democrat Hillary Clinton, who went to Newton and spoke of the need to change the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Republicans Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who regularly excoriate illegal immigrants, have helped keep passions aflame.

"We've got illegal immigrants working in our chicken factories and our hog factories," said Janice Bahr, 63, who works at the Iowa Falls Dairy Queen. "I'd like to make the ones who stay here learn to speak English. If we went to a foreign country, we'd speak both languages."

Still, Bahr, for her part, acknowledges that healthcare and education are more pressing economic concerns. And interviews with some others in Iowa Falls suggested that beneath the anger about illegal immigrants and global free trade are more poignant concerns.

"Who's going to turn off the lights when we grow old and die, because all the young people are going away," said Lorri Brouer, 46, who runs a shop selling gifts and paper products. "I would like to see a way to bring young people here and keep them here."

Jack Nissly, of Nissly and Nissly Farm Management, will be 80 early next year. He came to Iowa Falls in 1955, and has ridden the ups and downs of the rural economy ever since. The irony, he says, is that this is an upswing. Farmers have made enough money in 2007 that most of Nissly's clients are buying expensive equipment now, so they can write it off on their taxes. "I don't think we've got a single empty store here," Nissly said. "And there were years when we had a half-dozen."

And while many people in Iowa Falls expressed concern about their economic well-being , the town's historic character, dating from the late 19th century and early 20th century, has started to attract visitors, making tourism a possible source of growth.

The little Carnegie-Ellsworth Library has collected memorabilia from a century ago, from wooden sleds to dime-store elixirs to saltine cans and mail-order editions of James Fenimore Cooper novels.

"Back in the '80s, it was just a horrible recession-depression, and a lot of stores downtown failed," said Mary Lawler, who works in the library. "But a lot of people have said, 'Hey, we're not going to let it die.' "

They got federal funds to help preserve the downtown. Later, a biodiesel fuel plant and an ethanol plant opened nearby. An entrepreneur bought the historic 1899 Metropolitan Opera House and turned it into a movie theater. And the locally famous Princess Cafe is largely unchanged since 1934, when a Christmas Eve fire forced its reconstruction.

Back then, it was considered the best restaurant in the state and the first with air conditioning. People who stopped in Iowa Falls to change trains enjoyed fine meals there. Now, says owner Tom Zaimes, couples in their 70s come in and reminisce about sharing the wooden booths in their youths.

For many, though, the nostalgia is tinged with bitterness: They want more than the look of the old days - they want a whole community again, and greater control over its destiny. When they feel the lack of it, they wonder why. And then they start laying blame.

"The emotion [directed at illegal immigrants] comes from the symbolism," said Steve Krogh, the brother of Dave Krogh who became a doctor and moved to the larger Mason City. "The average person thinks, 'I don't feel so confident about my own economic future. Maybe all the darker-skinned people doing the landscaping and food service and working in the factory farms - maybe that has something to do with my problems.' "

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