Immigration panel takes aim on Trump, polarization
Concern over a society that seems increasingly polarized was a prevailing sentiment as Storm Lake hosted a high-profile "Living Room Discussion" on American immigration Wednesday night.
As TV cameras panned over a panel of area leaders, one spoke of "political tribalism" that is demonizing voiceless newcomers. "I've seen those changes," said Harold Heie, founder of OurIowaNeighbors.org in Orange City. "That legislators will move to benefit all the people in our country, seems a very distant idea now."
He recalled a vivid image of a Latino mom telling him that her young daughter cried every day when she went to school, afraid that her mother would not be there when she returned, taken away for deportation. "Everything changes when you get to know immigrants personally," he said of opinions. "People who bash immigrants tend not to know immigrants."
A crowd of about 50 gathered at King's Pointe to hear the discussion, including the director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C.
The panel discussion that included several Storm Lake leaders, lauded the community as an oasis of inclusion, although one where work admittedly remains to be done.
The discussion was one of 30 being held around the country by the National Immigration Forum's program Bibles, Badges & Business. Midwest organizer for the group Liz Dong said the motivation is to create a new dialog among sensible people amid the increasingly polarized political environment. "We decided to get out of D.C." to gather input, she said. Results will be compiled into a report that will be made public later this year as part of the NIF's national agenda.
Beyond the rhetoric
Among the speakers were Jose Ibarra, a Storm Lake City Council member who came to the U.S. and the community as an elementary-age student.
Ibarra said that he felt that being American is more than being born here, or doing the paperwork to legally live here. It is coming to believe in the ideals the country stands for, he feels, noting that he has a sticker that reads, "Mexican by birth, American by choice."
He said he had put up with discrimination, being told he is not a "real American," and a long wait for a change to become a citizen. "Don't tell me I don't love America," he said.
Ibarra felt an event like the "Living Room Conversation" wouldn't have taken place three years ago, but the need is sparked by the election of Donald Trump and resulting comments "demonizing" immigrants. "Hate has come out into the open," he said.
Panelist Carl Turner, StormLake Superintendent of Schools, felt that "a lot of people are really scared out there" as they hear the angry rhetoric. He felt that moderation is needed and "the only way to be moderate is to listen to other people, hear what they are saying and respect others' opinions," he said. "We have a lot of people on the edge, and not too many trying to get to the middle."
Storm Lake Public Safety Director Mark Prosser agreed, suggesting that "leadership is rapidly losing the ability to compromise."
Heie said, "You can cut the fear with a knife since the election of Donald Trump," but Prosser argued that the division extends back much farther than that.
The situation is complicated by technology that offers 24 hour news cycles and social media that may tend to "spew hate as opposed to good," Prosser said. While the country is largely positive, it is the most polarized opinions that are being heard by the public.
Storm Lake as 'blueprint'
Panelists agreed that Storm Lake is fortunate to have the cultural diversity it has experienced. Mayor Mike Porsch said that without it, the community would not have the population, new businesses, workforce and schools growth that it is experiencing.
"We are so lucky here in Storm Lake to have all these backgrounds," Ibarra agreed.
"We don't see here what we hear from the national level," mused Fred Hall, an area dairy livestock specialist with Iowa State University Extension. "I'm amazed at what I see as I visit the area festivals and county fairs," he said of the successful mix of cultures. "You wouldn't recognize it if you only knew what you heard from the national level."
Prosser suggested that Storm Lake is "a young, energetic, vibrant mosaic of the world." Students growing up here have a better understanding of what the world is like, he suggested. Many of the cultures have such a deep love for family that "white America could learn a lot from."
The community is what the rest of the county will look like 25 years from now, if not sooner, Ibarra added. "We are the blueprint. Other communities are dying off because they are not willing to accept change."
"We are blessed in a very unique way," said Douglas Corlew, senior pastor from Summit Evangelical Church. He suggested it creates opportunity to learn from the "richness and beauty" of other cultures and by accepting them, to "become more complete in humanity."
Heie felt that many who profess to be Christians have not embraced social justice for newcomers, but are primarily concerned about their own interests.
Moderator Matt Breen of KTIV news questioned panelists on race relations in Storm Lake.
Ibarra felt that Storm Lake has gone through the diversification process over many years now, and different people seem to get along fine. "I don't see a lot of division," he said.
Prosser said relations remain a "work in progress." While he expressed pride in how the community has adopted diversity, it does remain a divisive factor for some. "Racism is alive and well," and "Storm Lake will never be exactly where it needs to be," but by and large, he said the community has "thrown its arms open" and embraced change.
Schools and school activities and sports, have led the way in the process, panelists agreed. Jeaneth Ibarra, Jose's wife and outreach director for the Tyson plants, said that weekend soccer in Storm Lake once attracted only Latinos, but now sees people of all backgrounds.Tacos were the meal of choice there, now egg rolls are equally popular.
Superintendent Turner said that 84 percent of the schools are non-caucasian. Often working through translators to communicate with parents, he quickly realized that "all parents want the same things for their kids." More people come into the community partly because they hear it is a place "where that stuff can happen," he said.
Challenges still remain
Panelists saw several hurdles in the community yet to overcome. With at least 24 native languages being spoken among Storm Lake families, leaders struggle to find ways to communicate information to everyone. Schools often depend on children to pass along information to parents, which may not be very effective, Turner said.
He also felt that outside media has done Storm Lake no favors, portraying its diversity as chaos when it is actually peaceful and respectful. "Don't believe what you hear," he said.
Prosser said that people may arrive from cultures with different standards when it comes to health care, domestic situations and discipline of children, creating a "learning curve."
Ibarra said that the emphasis has always been on non-immigrants to welcome immigrants to the community, but there should be more effort from immigrants on getting to know their community and neighbors. He felt that there should be more introspection not on Trump's election, but why people chose to vote for his message. Some see immigrants from Mexico and assume they are drug dealers, rapists or gang members, rather than people seeking a better life for themselves and their children.
Mayor Porsch said that the challenge is drawing people together; once they begin to meet and talk, barriers fall.
Rev. Corlew described local immigrants as "hard working, risk takers," but also as "vulnerable, and easily overlooked." He urged others to try to understand what it would be like to be in their shoes, in a country where they may know no one and struggle with the language.
Council member Ibarra sought to dispel the stereotype that immigrants are here to "mooch" off the government. In his family and others, he said, accepting unemployment benefits would be seen as an embarrassment, and proud families would work multiple jobs rather than take charity. They come to the U.S. knowing they may not be welcomed, and that they may have to work 10 times harder than others to achieve the same level of reward, he said.
With political leaders seemingly incapable of bringing people together, it is a challenge to get people in the same room to even talk respectfully, Heie said. "The great conversation stop is 'They've broken the law, they must be punished.' And that's the end of conversation. But breaking the law doesn't have to mean deportation. There can be fines and a pathway to earn citizenship. Why do we have to think there can't be something between nothing for a penalty and deportation?"
To create common ground, we have to listen to one another's concerns, he insisted. "Don't just listen to people you agree with, because all we get us echoes of ourselves."
"This can be fixed if reasonable people come to the middle," Chief Prosser noted of immigration understanding, saying that that there is no instant answer. "It's a marathon, not a sprint," he said.