One Iowa city's mixed views on immigration
As the caucuses loom, residents of Waterloo want the nation's broken immigration system fixed – but they don't want any one group to become penalized or singled out.
The crowd at La Chiquita, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Waterloo, Iowa, is so diverse it looks like a corner cafe in Queens, New York.Skip to next paragraph
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Hispanics, Asians, whites, and blacks share local news as they enjoy authentic spicy tacos, flautas, and burritos. And with the Iowa caucuses just around the corner, immigration has also become a hot lunchtime topic – in ways that might be surprising.
For starters, everyone here, from the native-born Americans to the new citizens who've opened small businesses and filled the factories and meatpacking plants – even the illegal immigrants working here – want the nation's broken immigration system fixed. What they don't want is for any one group to become penalized or singled out in the process.
Indeed, this is Iowa, where nice trumps nasty in politics. And it's the first state to make known its choice of candidates in the presidential race. How residents' feelings about immigration intersect with the politicians' rhetoric could help set the tone for the national immigration debate in the coming campaign year.
"The heart is right toward others here, but the [immigration] issues are political," says Joyce Rice, who was having lunch with her husband, Vaughn Rice. "The broken system endangers this nation, because you simply can't have people walking over the border. Yet at the same time, it's about people ... coming to know and respect one another and people helping one another."
Near the heart of Iowa, Waterloo is a small city that's been coping with large numbers of newcomers for decades. In the mid-20th century, African-Americans came to work in the factories and meatpacking plants. In the 1990s, the promise of jobs brought thousands of Hispanics and Bosnians.
Police Chief Thomas Jennings calls this a "blended community" – one that has worked hard to ensure everyone gets along. Police officers get regular diversity training and hold meetings with youths. The library stocks books in English, Spanish, and Bosnian and has a diversity outreach coordinator. Chief Jennings says that they've made the extra effort in part because of Waterloo's history of being racially segregated – blacks on one side of the Cedar River and whites on the other – and the turmoil that it created in the 1960s.
"We didn't get a lot of things right. We could have done things better," says Jennings. "Somewhat because of that foundation, a lot of people came together and said, 'We want to make this work. We want to do better [than in the past.']"
From Jennings's perspective, that has paid off for Waterloo. A decade ago, the downtown was full of empty, boarded-up storefronts. Today it's thriving, in part because of immigrants like Edin Miskic, who came from Bosnia in the mid-1990s. He worked first as a translator at a meatpacking plant, then opened a small European grocery store with some saved money. Now he owns several large stores.
"When I first came here, the downtown didn't have much life to it: It was like a ghost town, almost," he says. "Now there's a lot of renovation, community projects, new businesses coming in: Waterloo started to look good and now it attracts a lot of different cultures and businesses to the area."
But even with all the appreciation expressed for the economic benefits that immigrants have brought, there is still an undercurrent of concern about those that are here illegally.