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Nativist Politics from GOP Presidential Candidates Are Bad for the Economics of Iowa Families

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No matter which Republican presidential candidate emerges as the victor in the upcoming Iowa caucuses, what is assured is that attacking and vilifying immigrant communities all over the U.S. and at the southern border will remain the bedrock of their strategy to drive GOP voters to the polls, both in primary races over the next several months and the general election later this year. 

In Iowa, GOP presidential candidates have already spent millions of dollars in advertising promoting some of their most outlandish – and flat-out false – statements about immigrants and the border, including one claim from the campaign of indicted former President Donald Trump raising “the possibility of a Hamas attack.” Not only is this wild fiction, this disinformation only helps fuel the challenges at the border.

Nevertheless, this anti-immigrant narrative is being pushed in a state where immigrants and immigration are critical across a spectrum of industries, as America’s Voice Political Director Zachary Mueller noted earlier this week. But the GOP’s increasing ethnonationalism, in fact, represents a threat to the livelihood and workplace rights of all U.S. workers.

First, the basic facts. It’s undeniable that in Iowa and across the nation, the agricultural, health care, hospitality, and meatpacking industries rely on immigrants, who have helped reverse challenges posed by an aging population, as well as filled key labor shortages. “This is particularly acute in the health care sector, where elderly Iowans need care, and rural Iowans need doctors,” Mueller noted. “According to the American Immigration Council research, 21.1% of Iowa physicians are foreign-born.”

The impact of immigrants regardless of legal status on the state’s meatpacking industry is a prime example of the critical importance of these workers. Even when plants like Tyson Foods offered double the state’s minimum wage in efforts to attract workers, employers struggled to find U.S.-born Americans to fill oftentimes grueling and dangerous positions, the New York Times reported in 2017. It’s been immigrants who’ve helped fill these gaps, today representing more than 45% of workers in this industry. Filling these difficult and essential jobs isn’t just critical for ensuring food makes it to the kitchen table, but also ensuring production that keeps prices of meat affordable to working families across the country.     

Immigrants contribute all over Iowa, paying more than $520 million in local and state taxes in 2018. Refugees – another target of xenophobes – have paid at least $219 million in taxes annually, according to the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. The taxman may be few peoples’ favorite person, but that enormous tax base that represents the immigrant neighbors in communities all across the state keeps fire departments open, roads paved, and teachers paid.   

Neighbors like Yet, a Sudan-born refugee, got his first job at a meatpacking plant. After putting himself through college, he became “a lead case manager for Lutheran Family Services in Council Bluffs, supporting new arrivals to the region,” Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance continued.

Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of his family-run newspaper, The Storm Lake Times, acknowledges that processing-plant work is tough,” the Times said. “Yet for a refugee or an immigrant without English or skills, butchering livestock at that wage, he said, is a ‘first rung on the American ladder to success.” It’s success that’s benefitted people like Yet and his home state of Iowa.

But the fact of the matter is that GOP nativism stands to hurt all workers. While Republican presidential candidates like Trump have frequently touted slogans purporting to put “American workers first,” wildly extreme plans to sweep workplaces, homes, and neighborhoods in order to locate, detain and purge our undocumented neighbors in Iowa and across the nation is a dystopian vision that will hurt everyone, costing the federal government nearly a trillion dollars in revenue over a period of ten years. In Iowa alone, losses would come to more than $2 billion.

As Trump and his fellow Republican candidates have stated, they are not just going to target those without any sort of documentation, but would seek to end programs like DACA and TPS as well.    

One group that might benefit from this nativist agenda, however, are the abusive and unscrupulous bosses who profit off the exploitation of undocumented workers. We already saw a preview of this elsewhere during the Trump administration, when mass immigration raids that targeted Mississippi poultry plants in August 2019 resulted in the deportation of hundreds of workers. Other workers were separated from their children for months. One man was swept up after driving his sister to work. However, not one high-ranking poultry plant executive faced any charges.

“Arrest warrants and indictments of the dozens of workers arrested on August 7 indicate that companies knew many of their workers were undocumented (some even wore ankle monitors) and that they frequently knowingly hired workers under aliases and with false Social Security numbers,” Mississippi Center for Justice said in a 2021 report. “Court documents additionally show that an indicted hiring and payroll manager received fifteen percent of the salaries of each person she recruited.”

 One would only need to look at Trump’s own business practices to understand how workers would be used, abused and discarded under his despotic vision. Even as Trump kicked off his first presidential campaign on the backs of immigrants, immigrants were helping upkeep his businesses. The practice of hiring undocumented workers was so pervasive at his New Jersey golf club that The Washington Post once described it as a “pipeline” of undocumented workers, some of whom were subjected to abusive workplace conditions. 

“When he called us ‘immigrant rapists,’ the supervisor would say, ‘Good, good, that’s nice because immigrants are no good. Garbage,’” said former Bedminster housekeeper Victorina Morales.

This pipeline of undocumented workers also extended to a Trump-owned winery in Virginia. While some winery workers were in the U.S. through guest worker visas (further proof that our nation depends on immigrant labor), “there has also long been a smaller parallel staff of undocumented employees who worked at the property year-round,” the Post reported in December 2019. These workers were fired – but not until after the harvest had been completed. “Workers had finished the arduous annual grape harvest, which involved working 60-hour weeks and overnight shifts under floodlights.”

Trump knew about these workers “for months,” attorney Anibal Romero told the the Washington Post. “He waits until the fields are tended, grapes picked, wine made. He then discards them like a used paper bag. Happy New Year — you’re fired.”

The strategy of nativists is to pit undocumented immigrants against U.S.-born Americans when, in fact, pro-immigrant policies are economic winners for all workers. Under a plan announced by the Biden administration last year, undocumented workers who witness or are themselves victims of labor-related abuses can now more efficiently access crucial protections against deportation. The policy earned praise from both union leaders and immigrant rights organizations alike, because policy reining in abusive employers benefits everyone regardless of legal status. Said another way: when the boss cannot threaten workers with calls to ICE that could separate them from their family, that is one major scare tactic they cannot use to bust up a union organizing drive.

“This policy attempts to align the interests of undocumented workers with those of native-born workers,” Greg Sargent noted at The Washington Post. “For some on the right, casting those interests as irrevocably in conflict has been essential to their project. This zero-sum agitprop packages the nativist impulse to drastically limit immigration as all about protecting the American worker. But this new move undermines that rhetoric.”

“‘All workers, whether documented or undocumented, have an interest in being compensated, in not being abused, in being able to blow the whistle,’ immigration lawyer David Leopold added,” Sargent continued. “When the undocumented are exploited, Leopold said, ‘that brings down the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers as well.’” Leopold is a former President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who is a legal advisor to America’s Voice. 

Reality, of course, doesn’t serve the GOP campaigns seeking primary votes through the demonization of immigrant communities. “Each talks about the border and migrants endlessly on the campaign trail, but the goal is not a policy discussion. Instead, it is a form of strategic bigotry to agitate anxieties around scarcity, safety, and identity,” Mueller noted. “But, it’s critically important to understand that the sum total of Trump’s policy positions goes well beyond immigrants, amounting to a plan to redefine who is an American under a white nationalist vision.”