An Iowa debate over newcomers

As its population declines, town debates whether to attract new immigrants.

Trouble is brewing right here in River City, America's prototypical Midwestern town. But it's hard to see.

Storefronts are full. Unemployment is low. But Midwesterners are worried that they're headed for long-term demographic decline.

So this week, in a dramatic two-hour, televised debate, Iowans in Mason City (the inspiration for "The Music Man") debated whether to try to attract new immigrants to its borders.

That an overwhelmingly white community with a tiny Hispanic population should address an issue more commonly debated in California and Texas is a sign that the immigration issue has spread nationally.

But, despite the apparent incongruousness of the debate's setting, America would be well advised to tune in, because it also faces the same dilemma: How fast should it grow? If it continues to accept immigrants at its current rate, virtually assuring an eventual doubling of its population, what impact will that have on the poorest and least skilled portion of its current population?

But as rural states join the already complicated immigration debate, they are adding a new perspective: Unlike other parts of the US, worried about growing too much, Iowa and the rest of the Midwest and rural America are concerned about shrinking.

In Iowa, Gov. Tom Vilsack has served as point man for the state's predicament. Citing the need for 310,000 new workers to stem economic decline, he has announced a three-point program to keep young Iowans in the state, convince former residents to return, and target new immigrants. In December, he designated Mason City and two other Iowa communities as pilot projects to actively recruit immigrants. His "New Iowans" project has since been scaled back, merely ensuring that newcomers are welcome. But the premise remains the same.

Unless new people move in, "we are going to have some work-force demands that we are not going to be able to meet," warns Lori Henry, a city councilwoman and chairman of the New Iowans Commission here in Mason City.

Or as retired farmer Daryl McCready told the audience of a few hundred at Wednesday night's town meeting: "We have a problem right here in Iowa. It starts with E and it ends with S. And that spells 'exodus.' "

That parody of "The Music Man" rings all too true for this community of 29,000. Mason City, the inspiration for the musical's River City, looks prosperous for the moment. Unemployment remains under 3 percent. Storefronts in the pleasant downtown are occupied. But demographic trouble is brewing here, officials are quick to point out.

"We're set for next year," says Keith Sersland, superintendent of Mason City Community Schools. The school system has begun recruiting teachers from out of state. When it couldn't find someone to teach auto mechanics, it paired a local mechanic with a teacher to keep the vocational course alive. But the city's school population has declined by 200 in the past four years, points out a school board member, which has meant a loss of $1 million a year in incoming education funds.

The challenge doesn't just lie with the size of Mason City's population. Its increasing age also means fewer working-age people. For example: Mercy Medical Center, the county's largest employer, has seen the average age of its employees rise to 41. Five percent of its positions remain unfilled.

While that's fairly good, given the nationwide nursing shortage, Brandt Lippert, vice president of human resources, expects more unfilled positions as people retire. "We think in the next five to 10 years we are really going to need to change," he says.

Supporters of the New Iowans project like to emphasize the recruitment of high-skilled workers. "We're looking for skilled people who can be taxpaying members of the community," says Bill Schickel, Mason City mayor and general manager of one of the local radio stations.

But critics point out that immigration also brings low-skilled workers who depress wages. "If we allow the businesses in the community to do the recruiting, [they'll say]: 'This is what we offer.' If no one shows up, they will import this cheap labor," says Duane Crum, a former union steward. "The cheap-labor lobby is going to flood our market. It reduces our standard of living."

In fact, Mason City is beginning to import workers at both ends of the spectrum. Mercy Medical has just brought in a pediatrician from the Philippines to complement a staff that also includes doctors from India, South Africa, and Latin America. A local cement factory has brought in engineers from Argentina and elsewhere. A local meat-processing facility employs a number of Bosnians who have moved to Mason City.

Ironically, the city's ethnic population has actually fallen since the 1970s, because several packing and sugar beet-processing plants have closed. A slim influx of Hispanics - some 160 - accounted for all the city's growth during the 1990s. But they still represent less than 4 percent of the population. In fact, all of Iowa contains fewer Hispanics than the city of Boston.

If the town hall meeting is any indication, a slight majority of local residents worry more about decline than about being overrun. "We really have been warmly received," says Viviana Molina, an Argentine who moved here four months ago with her husband and two daughters.

But Eduardo Hernandez, manager of Mason City's only Mexican-owned restaurant, encountered numerous problems getting license plates for his car until he brought an American friend. "There's a little discrimination," he says. "There are people who like you and people who don't."

If nothing else, officials hope to improve that reception. In the musical, "the claim was made there was trouble in River City because there wasn't a boys' band," says Mayor Schickel. "Well, we have a boys' band and we're creating a symphony of opportunity that is creating good jobs."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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