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SL does not foresee immigrant raid, but concerns continue

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Immigration agents had barely arrived in Postville when the rumors began to fly of potential immigration raids in other Iowa communities, especially those featuring meatpacking plants, such as Storm Lake, Marshalltown, Waterloo and others.

The rumors proved unfounded in places like Storm Lake, but the impact of the largest illegal immigration raid in U.S. history has changed the landscape for the state's most diverse communities. Hispanic residents in several communities are left wondering, "Are we next?"

"We are more vulnerable now," asked Angelica Cardenas, 28, a schools worker. "There is always fear of something like this, but with these raids, we know now it's real."

State Representative Gary Worthan said that he has heard nothing that would lead him to believe that Storm Lake would be targeted for a raid like the one in Postville, where nearly 400 people were arrested, or the similar operation in Laurel, Miss., Monday where 350 were rounded up. One such raid, on a smaller scale, was held here a number of years ago.

"Raids like that - it is one of the toughest questions wee are facing as a society," said Worthan. "If there were a raid in Storm Lake, I would hope that we would see nothing like the percentage of illegals (compared to Postville)," Worthan said.

He said he doesn't feel an immigration raid would be necessary in Storm Lake at this time, and said that he is confident that the city's largest employer, Tyson Foods, is doing its best to prevent the hiring of illegals.

"It is not so much that Storm Lake would need agents to come in and do a raid and arrests bunches of people - but I do think that in some capacity, federal agencts, ICE of whatever need to come in on a regular basis and make sure employers are following the regulations on immigrant employment," Worthan said.

A decision must ultimately be made on whether the U.S. will be a "nation of laws", or if the feds will give up making any effort to enforce immigration law. "If that happens, the floodgates will be open, and it will be a free for all. Local businesses that don't hire illegal workers will no longer be able to compete with those who do," Worthan said.

At the state level, it was attempted time after time to insert language in various bills that would strengthen immigration enforcement during the 2008 session, but on strict party-line opinion, the efforts were always turned back, according to Worthan. He hopes for a more bipartisan approach during the coming session, but no matter what the state does, it will not be a complete answer.

"This isn't a Storm Lake problem or a state problem. Even if we succeed in pushing illegal immigrants out, we will only move them over the border and cause worse problems for our neighbor states," Worthan said.

Instead of headline-grabbing raids, Worthan suggests emphasis on creating an online database for employers to check out potential hires.

"To me there is no difference if you are the Tyson plant with 2,000 workers or the little local landscaping company with four or five. I think employers need to be able to jump on line and in 15 minutes, see where that person was last employed, check to see if that Social Security number really belongs to someone working in California, someone who is deceased or someone who is 4 years old."

Worthan said under the situation, if he were to hire someone, he would have no idea how to verify for certain if they were legal, or if they were who they said they were in a time of rampant identy theft.

"That's the problem. If it's going to be my neck on the line as an employer if a worker is found to be illegal, I need to have the tools to make know who I am hiring."

The government's shift to high-profile immigration raids has instilled fear in towns across the country.

"These raids have really highlighted the difficulties towns face in this situation," said Ana-Maria Garcia Wahl, an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University who studies immigration issues in the Midwest and South. "I'm not sure all of these towns have an ability to cope and provide the crisis intervention."

Postville has lost more than a quarter of its pre-raid population of 2,300. Besides the detained workers, scores more fled or went into hiding.

People were pushed out of jobs and homes. Children were separated from parents. Businesses verged toward collapse.

There was some fear expressed among the Hispanic population of Storm Lake as well, according to those who work with immigrants.

In Perry, another Iowa community dominated by Tyson plant employment, Mayor Viivi Shirley watched TV news reports of the Postville raid, and said one of her first thoughts was, "Thank God it wasn't Perry." The school system in that town has already put a plan in place to react if a raid were to rock the community, similar to crisis plans for a natural disaster.

For their part, Tyson officials say they are confident their workers are in the country legally.

Applicants must go through a federally backed immigration verification system, Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson says.

"We have zero tolerance for employing people who are not authorized to work in the U.S. and use all available tools provided by the U.S. government to verify the documents of the people we hire," Mickelson said.

He said audits at Tyson facilities are conducted regularly, including some by an outside company.

Still, a time of massive raids tends to be a time of insecurity in Iowa communities of diversity.

"You can see that people are more scared in general," said Rosa Gonzalez of the advocacy group Hispanics United for Perry. "Some of them, they don't even tell you directly but people don't go outside like they used to and things like that."

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