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In a new piece, the National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein highlights how Iowa’s rapidly-changing demographics are setting the stage for a complex conversation on immigration as the state readies for its first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Just last week, the Des Moines Register’s Kyle Munson moderated a forum on immigration, #UniteIowa, featuring leaders from Iowa’s immigrant, business, educational, faith, labor and political communities, as well as Democratic candidates Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee (all Presidential candidates and members of the Iowa delegation were invited).
Organizers hoped the event would offer a sharp contrast to the increasingly-dangerous rhetoric of Republican candidates for President, particularly Donald Trump. As Munson later noted in his column:
“The #UniteIowa on Immigration forum Saturday brought together 400 or so Iowans around a topic that tends to flare up with the slightest spark — especially with all the rhetorical gasoline poured on it by this summer’s presidential campaign. Yet we were able to create a temporary bubble of civility where it seemed OK to disagree.
As Brownstein notes, while leading anti-immigrant leader Steve King calls Iowa home (in fact, the #UniteIowa forum was held in his district. He was invited, but did not attend), it’s immigrants and minorities who are driving Iowa’s growth as the white population is declining. This is destined to significantly shift how immigration is discussed in the state, especially as Republican candidates visit:
All of the state’s population growth has come among racial minorities. Since 2000, Latinos have nearly doubled in number to almost 158,000. The number of Asians and African-Americans in the state has each increased by about half. The three groups now combine for nearly 11 percent of the state’s population, up from about 6 percent in 2000.
Many of those in the [#UniteIowa] room worked for religious, public-health, or social-welfare organizations responding to the demographic transition steadily reshaping the state. Census Bureau figures show that since 2000, non-Hispanic Whites have declined from about 93 percent of Iowa’s population to 88 percent. Over that time, the absolute number of Whites living in Iowa has actually fallen by about 8,000.
As in most places, the change has come even faster among the young, which points toward compounding change in the future. Since 2000, the number of Iowa Whites younger than 20 has declined by over 88,000, according to calculations by demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Over the same period, the state has added nearly 77,000 children of color younger than 20. Non-White students now comprise a majority in the public schools in Des Moines, the state’s largest city.
The change has also been magnified in concentrated pockets of the state, where employers have attracted immigrant workers to fill local employment needs, often in the physically demanding meatpacking industry. Storm Lake is one of those places.
Once virtually all White, it has been transformed by waves of immigrants from Southeast Asia (beginning in the 1970s) and Mexico (starting in the 1990s), drawn to employment in the area’s two meatpacking and one egg-processing plants. Just since 2000, non-Latino Whites have fallen from more than four-fifths to just over three-fifths of the population in Buena Vista County (which includes Storm Lake), while Latinos (mostly from Mexico) have doubled from about one-in-eight to one-in-four residents.
Kids of color now represent the clear majority of the local school system.
The immigration topic in Iowa has already gotten a huge national boost from local immigrant leaders like Monica Reyes, a DREAM Iowa cofounder who has confronted several Presidential candidates, and Emilia:
Emilia Marroquin, a naturalized citizen from El Salvador also at the SALUD booth, concurred. She moved to the area 15 years ago from Los Angeles, which she said she left after her husband witnessed a shooting. “At the time, it was a shock,” said Marroquin, a community liaison for the local Head Start program. “But everybody was very welcoming.” Marroquin has two children in the local high schools, and says educators have supported their multicultural background. “They encourage the kids to speak Spanish at home,” she said. “They really support that being bilingual is a plus.” Now Marroquin is planning to seek election this fall as the first Latino member of the local school board.
Munson, the Register columnist who organized the forum, said the story of Iowa’s reaction to its immigrant influx and demographic change has largely followed the same trajectory, from concern to predominant acceptance. “There was more anxiety 10-to-15 years ago,” he said. “Now the conversation has generally shifted. Now the broad story is saying that rural communities are dying, and … new waves of Iowans [immigrants] are reviving those towns.”
Like it or not, Iowa in the coming months seems destined to be a stage where those [immigration] questions and answers will be hotly debated.
The entire piece from Ron Brownstein, “How Iowa’s Population Mix Might Scramble its High-Stakes Caucuses,” is a must-read. The entire article is available here.