With Workers Hard To Find, Immigration Crackdown Leaves Iowa Town In A Bind

May 21, 2019
Originally published on May 25, 2019 9:13 am

One morning a year ago, federal immigration agents swept into the Midwest Precast Concrete plant in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and arrested 32 men who were working there illegally.

"I was in the car eating when all of a sudden they all arrived," one worker tells NPR. "They took me out of the car and put handcuffs on me and on everyone else too. They even had a dog." The worker did not want his name used because his case is being heard by a judge.

His plight is at the center of an immigration debate — and an economic problem — in this Iowa community and nationally. Mount Pleasant is in Henry County, where the 2.3% unemployment rate is so low that employers are struggling to fill 300 open jobs.

At the same time, the concrete worker and many of his co-workers from Mexico and Central America, who were arrested last year, are waiting for deportation hearings and are not permitted to work legally.

He feared "losing everything," he says. "My family, my job, years of sacrifice and work."

For Ted Wiley, hiring workers for his small, family-owned construction company in Mount Pleasant is something of a gamble.

Good employees are so hard to find that Wiley can never be sure whether new hires will show up for work, even though he's willing to train them and pays what he considers a decent salary.

"It is so hard to get people in the door just to sit down and interview," Wiley says. "You're afraid you're going to scare them off. Any little thing that you do, they won't show up for the first day of work."

Like a lot of business owners in Iowa, Wiley says one solution to the chronic labor shortage is to encourage more outsiders to come to the state, including immigrants.

On May 9, 2018, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement swept into Midwest Precast Concrete and arrested 32 men from Mexico and Central America who were working illegally.
Jim Zarroli / NPR

"I don't doubt that there are immigrants that get into the country that shouldn't be here. There's no question about that," Wiley says. "I know that there are a lot that come in that are just here for a better life for their family — no different than any of the rest of us. As far as I'm concerned, we've got room for them."

It's a controversial position throughout Iowa, where the state has passed legislation aimed at discouraging illegal immigration. It's also home to some of the most vociferous critics of illegal immigration, including Republican Rep. Steve King.

The immigration raid last year ignited a debate in Mount Pleasant about who should be allowed into the community and who was to blame for what happened. Was it the men, for working illegally, or the company, for hiring them?

A food pantry was set up at First Presbyterian Church to help feed the men and their families. Rallies were held in support of the men, and a local immigration group called Iowa WINs chipped in to help them financially.

But some Mount Pleasant residents "hardened their hearts" against the men, says the Rev. Trey Hegar, the church's pastor.

"There were people who said, 'Well, that's what you get.' If you're here illegally or undocumented, there was little compassion or understanding for that," he says.

A food pantry was set up at First Presbyterian Church to help feed the men, who aren't permitted to work legally, and their families.
Jim Zarroli / NPR

Some locals say they have no problem with people coming to Iowa from other countries. They just don't like illegal immigration. They suggest that businesses pay more to lure native Iowans into the workforce. Many believe companies want to hire immigrants for the wrong reasons.

"It's just because they can pay them less money to work the same amount of hours or more," says Chelsea Sammons, who works part time at a convenience store. Sammons says that when she applies for full-time jobs in the area, she often never hears back from anyone.

The debate in Mount Pleasant mirrors one taking place throughout Iowa, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the United States.

Many business leaders worry that voices like King's send a message that Iowa doesn't want immigrants.

In February, business leaders formed the Iowa Compact on Immigration, a group aimed at underscoring the positive role that immigrants can play in the state's economy. The leaders say bringing in people from other countries can bring a new vibrancy to the state. Iowa hasn't traditionally attracted a lot of outsiders, at least in recent years.

But such arguments are swimming against the political tide in Iowa, where opposition to illegal immigration remains strong.

One bill, passed by the Iowa Senate, would require employers to use E-Verify, the voluntary federal program for checking the immigration status of new hires. And the legislature passed a bill banning sanctuary cities for undocumented workers.

State Sen. Julian Garrett, who sponsored the E-Verify bill, says he understands that Iowa is short of workers. He says the state has taken steps to encourage native Iowans who don't hold jobs to return to the workforce.

He says he's not opposed to immigration — as long as it's legal.

"If you're an honest employer, if you obey the law, and your competitor down the street is violating the law, hiring people who are here illegally," Garrett says, "that's not fair."

Kristi Ray, executive vice president of the Mount Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance, says last year's raid at Midwest Precast Concrete underscores how broken the nation's immigration system is.

"Who's to blame? The guy that bought the illegal Social Security number? They wanted to go to work. They wanted to take care of their family. The company needs workers. That's why immigration is such a hard issue," she says.

Ray has traveled to Washington with other business leaders to encourage lawmakers to try to address the problem employers are having.

Meanwhile, many of the men arrested last year at Midwest Precast Concrete remain in the area, awaiting their deportation hearings.

If the worker who didn't want his name used is deported to Mexico, his wife says she's prepared to follow him.

"I've lived in Iowa all my life," she says. "My kids were born here in Iowa. But, so my kids aren't separated from their dad, we will do what we have to do to be with him."

The men arrested last year are caught in a kind of Catch-22. If they return to their home countries before their hearings, they forfeit their bonds and are considered felons under U.S. law.

But because they're not allowed to work legally, they have no way of supporting themselves. They're getting by with the help of local churches and a pro-immigration group.

And so the worker who didn't want his name used spends much of his time these days sitting at home waiting, even though plenty of employers in the area are begging for applicants.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The unemployment rate is at a nearly 50-year low. Lots of employers say they're struggling to find qualified workers. This week, NPR is taking a closer look at the tight labor market. Business groups say one solution is to let more people into the country from other places. But in states like Iowa, that view is at odds with tough new policies meant to combat illegal immigration. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: At Jean C. Wiley & Sons' construction company, two workers are making cabinets for a new house. When company president Ted Wiley hires people, he trains them in woodworking and carpentry. Even so, he has trouble finding good people.

TED WILEY: It is so hard to get people in the door just to sit down and interview. It's - you just - you're afraid you're going to scare them off - any little thing that you do. They won't show up for the first day of work.

ZARROLI: The place where Wiley lives, Mount Pleasant, is a working-class town tucked amid the Iowa farm fields. It has a little college and a quaint tree-lined square rimmed with shops and restaurants. It's also small - only about 8,000 people. Not a lot of outsiders move here, and the job market is as tight as it's been in anyone's memory. There are 300 open jobs. Like a lot of business owners, Wiley says there's a solution. This part of Iowa needs to attract more immigrants. Wiley says he knows there are people who shouldn't be in the country - undocumented people, even criminals.

WILEY: But I can also tell you that there are - I know that there are a lot that come in that are just here for a better life for their family - no different than any of the rest of us. As far as I'm concerned, we've got room for them.

ZARROLI: But immigration is a controversial issue in Mount Pleasant these days because of something that happened last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: After a massive immigration raid rocked the Mount Pleasant community.

ZARROLI: One day last May, immigration agents swept into the Midwest Precast Concrete company on the edge of town. I spoke to one plant worker who says around lunchtime, he went out to buy food.

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: (Through interpreter) I'd just gotten back from the store. I was in the car eating when all of a sudden, they arrived - the helicopter, the patrol car, the Mount Pleasant sheriff. They took me out of the car and put handcuffs on me and on everyone else, too. They even had a dog.

ZARROLI: The worker didn't want his last name used because his case is still being heard by a judge. He is from Mexico. And though his wife is American, he hadn't yet completed the lengthy process of getting citizenship, so he got his job by buying someone's Social Security number. He earned $13 an hour. When immigration officials learned he was working illegally, he was put in a van and taken to a detention center, along with 31 other men.

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: (Through interpreter) A lot of things were going through my mind, such as losing everything - my family, my job, years of sacrifice and work. It was very hard, and we haven't gotten over it.

ZARROLI: In Mount Pleasant, the raid would ignite a debate about who should be allowed into the community. Rallies were held to support the man. A food pantry was set up for their families at the First Presbyterian Church. But Reverend Trey Hegar says some people hardened their hearts to the workers.

TREY HEGAR: There were people who said, well, that's what you get if you're here illegally or undocumented. There was little compassion or understanding for that.

ZARROLI: Some of these people faulted the undocumented workers. Others blamed the company for hiring them. The county where Mount Pleasant sits voted heavily for Donald Trump, and many share Trump's deep skepticism about immigration. Chelsea Sammons, a part-time convenience store clerk, believes companies hire immigrants because they don't want to pay fair wages.

CHELSEA SAMMONS: It's just because they can pay them less money to work the same amount of hours or more. But, I mean, that's how businesses work.

ZARROLI: The debate in Mount Pleasant mirrors a debate in Iowa as a whole. Seven cities have unemployment rates below 3%. In February, business leaders formed a group aimed at encouraging more immigration. They say outsiders will be good for the state. They make the economy more vibrant. But the Iowa Legislature has passed several bills cracking down on illegal immigration. Among the sponsors is Republican State Senator Julian Garrett.

JULIAN GARRETT: If you're an honest employer, if you obey the law, and your competitor down the street is violating the law, hiring people who are here illegally - which is a federal crime, of course - that's not fair to you to have to compete with somebody that can lower their costs that way.

ZARROLI: Garrett acknowledges there's a worker shortage, but he says with training and better pay, more native Iowans can be lured back into the workforce. But many business leaders worry that efforts such as these will discourage legal immigrants from coming to Iowa. Kristi Ray of the Mount Pleasant Chamber Alliance says, last year's raid underscores how broken the immigration system is.

KRISTI RAY: That's where I say, who's to blame? The guy that bought the illegal Social Security number - they wanted to go to work. They wanted to take share their family. The company needs workers. That's why immigration is such a hard issue.

ZARROLI: Meanwhile, most of the workers seized in last year's Mount Pleasant raid are free on bond. They're waiting for deportation hearings. There's a backlog of cases, and it will be a year or two before the worker we spoke to earlier sees a judge. His wife says, if he gets deported...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And we'll go to Mexico. We never lived there. I have lived in Iowa all my life. My kids are born here in Iowa. But so my kids aren't separated from their dad, we will do what we have to do to be with him.

ZARROLI: She has a job at a cookie factory, but without her husband's pay, the family is struggling financially. They get by on handouts from churches and a pro-immigration group called Iowa WINS. He says he hates being a burden, but he can't work legally. So he spends much of his time these days sitting at home, waiting, even though plenty of jobs in town are begging for applicants. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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