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.
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.
Police Officer Hector Camrin, himself the son of immigrants from the Philippines, says from his perspective, it's not a law-enforcement issue. As he patrols the streets here, he's found there are no more "bad" people in the illegal community than there are in the legal one. For him, and others interviewed here, it's a question of fairness.
"My personal feeling is that if you're in this country, there are ways to become citizens," he says. "When illegals come here and don't make the effort [to become citizens], then that just tarnishes everything my parents did and what every other immigrant did for years past before that."
People within the immigrant community – many of whom know people and are related to people who are here illegally – are just as adamant that the system needs to be fixed.
Ana Avila became a citizen two years ago, even though she's been in the country since she was a child. She now has three children who are also citizens, but her husband is not.
"We are not bad people. We are just here to make a living, and if we can be here legally, it's better," she says. "There's a shadow now, when my husband goes out: I do worry about him, and there are a lot of people who live like that."
Her husband was going to apply to become a citizen last year – even though he feared he might just be sent back to Mexico. But when Congress started to debate immigration reform proposals last year, he decided it was more prudent to wait. For one, some of the bills would have required people to go back to their original countries for as long as five years before they could apply to return as citizens. Ms. Avila couldn't imagine losing her husband for five years, so they decided to wait to see what Washington ultimately does.
"Most people would rather be legal and do things right," she says. "Right now, if you don't have a Social Security number, you can't get a driver's license. And if you can't get [that], you can't get insurance – and that's bad, too."
Avila worked for 11 years in a meatpacking plant here, but for health reasons, she had to quit. She now works part time for a community outreach group called El Centro, which is dedicated to helping Waterloo's different communities come together. At a recent Christmas party at the downtown YWCA, El Centro's director, Kim Hernandez, also said that something has to be done to resolve the issue.
"I would hope that if someone put a magnifying glass on Waterloo that they could walk away with an understanding of the necessity of the immigrant community – not just here but throughout the United States," says Ms. Hernandez. "[I hope they would] realize that people who are here without papers are still people, and see the humanity in them."
Back at La Chiquita restaurant, the Rices voice similar concerns and a desire that politicians would finally get immigration policy straightened out.
"This is a community that desperately needs good labor.... If you can do the job, you'll get hired. That said, you can't just open the borders," says Mr. Rice, a recruiting consultant, as his wife nods agreement. "We do have to shore up the borders and toughen up enforcement. But if you are here, there should be a process in place to legalize you."