Letter from the Editor

Thursday, January 8, 2009

If Iowans are concerned about panhandling, there will need to be a better option.

In the Rolodex under 'Immigrant crisis'

The New York Times, no less, comes to Storm Lake, poking around as the national media periodically does, mining for quaint midwestern opinions on immigration.

Something along the lines of, "they should all be shipped back where they came from," which it got, along with those who pointed out that ethnic diversification happens to be what saved Storm Lake in a period when the future was somewhat in question.

Fair enough - to each their own. Immigration has brought us progress and challenge all at the same time, and there is plenty of room for all opinions on whether or not the cost is worth the growth.

I would beg to differ, however, with the presentation of Storm Lake in these kind of stories.

According to the Gray Lady, Storm Lake is, sum total, "this small meatpacking town."

Indeed, Storm Lake has two big meat plants and plenty of meat jobs. Has had for as long as most people can remember. It is honest, hard, necessary work, and we have no need to apologize for it or be shamed for it.

But is that what Storm Lake is? Meattown USA? Or is it, as one quote in the Times suggested,"Little Mexico?"

If Storm Lake is just small meatpacking town USA, the same logic could lead us to describe New York as "dirty city full of tax drivers who don't speak English."

Such labels tell only a small part of the story, and usually tell it wrong. Labels almost always do an oversimplification injustice to people and places.

Storm Lake has an extraordinary number of schools, including three different school systems and two college campuses. Yet it is never the "education town."

It has a remarkable health care network with a major hospital, several clinics and all kinds of specialty care services. It is never the "health town," though.

For that matter, Storm Lake has more than its normally-alloted share of parks, waterfowl, auto parts, volunteerism, video rentals, quilters, churches, pharmacies, newspapers, anglers, golf carts, cheap sandals, extreme car audio systems, pizza, people who decline to use turn signals, fitness classes, cats, crows, watercolor artists, flags, cell phones, basketball fans and whatever...

It's never "the walleye town," the "churchgoing city" or the "pepperoni village," you will notice.

Somewhere along the line, Storm Lake got plugged into every Rolofex in the big-time media world as the municipal poster boy for immigrant/packinghouse problems.

Never mind that Storm Lake has adapted to diversity long ago, and almost all of its residents get along just fine.

Election years are an ideal time for metro journalism to pay a courtesy call to mine up a another eye-catching headline about how immigration "shakes" rural Iowa.

(Shaken, not stirred?) C'mon, get creative, copyeditors.

Every four years or so, we get to read about ourselves being in contrived crisis, a few people get stirred up for no particular reason, and Storm Lake comes away with a bit of a media wedgie again.

The Gotham press would be more effective reporting school lunch menus, of course; at least that would serve some purpose.

Immigration isn't new, it isn't going to suddenly go way and recreate a one-race 1950s Iowa, and there's not a whole lot reporters and politicians are going to do about it.

The last NYT article did do a sharp job of discussion various local people's political take on the immigration situation, some leaning to Republicans for border contol, others to Democrats for the possibility of a path to citizenship for immigrants who are already part of the local fabric.

These are the two potential political solutions, it seems, polar opposing one another, and I get the sneaking feeling that neither totally satisfy very many as a complete answer.

Bill Richardson was barely a blip on the 2008 polls, but he said something interesting in Storm Lake last week. Former Mexico President Vincente Fox said almost the same in his visit here.

That one thing we will have to do to gain control of immigration again is not just build walls, but help Mexico learn to develop decent jobs in the soft underbelly of its country.

Such an attitude is political suicide; it isn't a wall or a pretty sound byte. It is only true.

And while he wasn't a lot of people's choice for president, Richardson's opinion comes from a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a multiple-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee - he knows a bit about what he's saying.

Most illegal immigrants are coming to places like rural Iowa because there are no jobs where they originate from - at least nothing that pays a human wage or gives them much hope for a better life for their families. Hope is the most powerful commodity in the world; always has been.

Until there is opportunity within other countries, especially our continental neighbor, borders aren't going to mean much. There's a reason there's no wall of Canada.

In the meantime, people of ambition and concern for their families are going to make that trek - be it from Santa Rosa or Chicago, leaving the lifestyle they knew and loved ones for a chance at a better life - and we should see that as the complement that it is, as well as the challenge.

Until something really changes, the national media will rifle through that rolodex of hot-butten issues from time to time, thumb up Storm Lake under I for immigrant crisis.

After all, in their eyes, we're just that little meatpacking town. The real shame would be if we started to believe it.