Immigrants and their supporters across the state intend today’s work walk-out to show Iowans the impact immigrants have on the economy. While the children of immigrants were encouraged to stay home with their families today, Tomasa Fonseca will not be staying away from her job at a Marshalltown elementary school.
Fonseca, who moved to Marshalltown from Mexico in 1993, doesn’t expect many other immigrants in Marshalltown to skip work today. “I expect a regular day in Marshalltown,” Fonseca says. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 13 percent of Marshalltown’s residents are Hispanic, but Marshalltown’s elected leaders say at least 20 percent of the city’s 26-thousand residents are Latino.
The Swift meatpacking plant, which processes pork, is the main draw for the immigrants. Sixty-year-old Paul “Biff” Dysart served on the Marshalltown City Council for four years in the early 1990s when the city gave Swift a package of incentives that led to an expansion of the plant.
Dysart says he’s publicly apologized for “cheerleading” that packing plant expansion. “Because all we did was really get some of the dregs of society from Mexico. I suppose you could say I was naive in thinking we would be getting good guys but we didn’t get good guys. We got some good guys and a lot of bad guys.”
Dysart says it was a mistake, and the community has paid for it with a higher crime rate and an influx of drug running. “No one will tell you, even the people who were on the council back then will say that they realized they made a mistake would never say that publicly. You know why? They are so afraid of being branded as a racist. And here I am as a liberal.”
Dysart is a Democrat who served many years on the board of the local N-double-A-C-P. “So I’m no raging conservative like Congressman King but I’ll be honest with you,” Dysart says. “We have experienced here a major increase in crime.” Marshalltown Police Chief Lon Walker says Hispanics do not commit a disproportional share of the crimes committed in Marshalltown.
Many of the recent immigrants to Marshalltown come from the same area in Mexico, learning about jobs at the meatpacking plant from friends and relatives. Ramona Chavez moved from Mexico to Marshalltown in 1998 with her five children to take a job at the Swift plant. She is a member of Latinos In Action, the Marshalltown affiliate of Iowa Citizens for Community Action, and Chavez says she is “not part of the problem” but “part of the solution” in Marshalltown.
“I know we cause problems in the community because the Hispanic community (is) growing fast. Here in Marshalltown we have a lot of old people and some kind of problems for the community because they feel we are not good people. We are bad people, drug dealers,” Chavez said. “It is not true. We are hard workers, totally. We looking for better life for families.”
Congressman Steve King, a Republican from Kiron in western Iowa, has dubbed today “bite the hand that feeds you” day because King says by walking out on their jobs today, immigrants are harming their employers who have been the biggest advocates for amnesty for illegal immigrants.