The clamor of voices in Spanish is not business as usual at the Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce. But times, they are changing.
While politicians spent the day Monday arguing over the pros and cons of the Bush Administration-led efforts on immigration reform, Storm Lake's Hispanic business owners were gathering up in the chamber's offices to launch a new local organization.
While recent immigrants from Mexico provide entry-level labor for many local businesses, the Hispanic community is also providing much of the entrepreneurial fuel for the new business growth that the city is seeing - restaurants, groceries, clothing stores and others.
The Hispanic businesspeople started out to form a support group for their mutal concerns, but are growing into more than that, says Chamber Director Marilyn Monson.
"They are the messengers. They are going to take information about the education and services available to the immigrant population in Storm Lake out to their community."
As the ethnic businesses grow and find success in Storm Lake, their people will become more involved in the community and help to promote Storm Lake, the chamber feels.
The controversial immigrant legislation that President Bush is trying to push through Congress could play a major role in the goals for a community like Storm Lake, Monson reflects.
"We know that these people are a very valuable part of our labor force. They also have buying power, and contribute to the growth and diversification of our community," she told the Pilot-Tribune.
"It is very important that we keep the quality workers we have. They should be allowed to stay - and there needs to be legislation making it possible for people who are here now to have an opportunity to earn citizenship - and if it is offered, they should take that opportunity."
There are no solid numbers reflecting the percentage of the Storm Lake workforce that is Hispanic, or that may be less than fully documented as legal immigrants.
The fact that people previously thought of as the "minority" are now a slight majority in the public school population can, however, serve as an indictor of how vital Hispanic, Asian and African immigrants have become to the workforce in Storm Lake.
"When I visit with the business owners and managers in Storm Lake, what I keep hearing is that one of the biggest problems is that they can't find enough qualified help. Planning the chamber golf tournament, what I hear from a lot of people is that they can't go because they are understaffed and just can't seem to find enough workers," Monson said.
"The fact that business is good is wonderful, but we have to realize that we are lacking in help."
An article in The Nation magazine on Storm Lake some timeago hypothesized that something like half of the Latino workers in Storm Lake are of questionable documentation - and claimed that Social Security cards belonging to others could be purchased for $300-500.
"We get what no one else will take," that article quotes one Storm Lake minority outreach leader as saying - workers often see limited opportunity to advance beyond the entry-level labor jobs that attract so many into the pipeline from the Santa Rita region to Storm Lake - and often back again.
"We need to provide opportunity for people to stay, and to work their way up from the entry level," Monson says. "There has to be opportunity to get ahead for those who work hard at it."
Such opportunities include the English as a Second Language program provided by Iowa Central Community College to help adutl immigrants learn English and study toward citizenship, the Storm Lake High School charter school, which allows students who might not otherwise be able to afford college to earn Associate Degrees while they attend high school, and the local SCORE chapter with retired businesspeople who are willing to reach out to newcomers and help them start their own businesses.
"The problem is that many of the immigrant people don't know these services are available to them. We need to get the word out, and we hope that the new Hispanic business organization will be one vehicle to do that. We have some great success stories in minority-owned businesses in Storm Lake. Education and networking is very much what we need here to make that opportunity happen for more people," Monson said.
One of the immediate challenges discussed Monday was how the Hispanic business owners can go about attracting and serving the caucasian community. "Some of them, especially the restaurants, have already made great inroads, but some of the others would really like to be able to communicate better with the larger community," Monson said.
That group, yet to be named, will meet June 19 at 2 p.m. at the chamber building. All Hispanic business managers and others interested in furthering the interests of the Hispanic community are welcome.
The Bush proposal would introduce a guest-worker program, and provide 12 million illlegal immigrants a chance to earn legal status and eventually potential citizenship if they have jobs, pass a criminal background check and pay a fine. Children born in the United States to undocumented parents would gain automatic citizenship. Illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children could gain temporary legal status when they graduate from high school as long as they agreed to enroll in college or enlist in the military.
The proposal offers numerous "incentives" for the 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens to come "out of the shadows," Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson claims.
"Undocumented aliens will tell you they often have trouble sleeping at night, and leaving for work each day, not knowing if they will make it home at the end of the day."