A Publication of WTVP

A combination of factors has pushed the immigration debate back into the spotlight.

Three big changes have put the American immigration debate, which has been stalled for years, back into high gear. And the implications for the Midwest and immigrant-dependent regions like central Illinois will be huge.

Everyone knows about the first change. That’s the Republican Party’s realization, in the wake of the presidential election, that it has to win Hispanic votes or become a permanent minority in American politics. The revived progress toward immigration law reform in Washington indicates that the party is taking this threat to heart.

Less remarked upon, the second change is a coalition taking shape behind the scenes that has the clout to affect attitudes within the Republican Party in particular, and in the body politic at large. You can call this coalition the “Four Bs”—Business, Badges, Bibles and Books.

Defining a New Coalition
Business refers to employers, a key GOP constituency. As the Midwestern workforce shrinks, employers—especially in farm-related jobs, such as dairies or meatpacking—rely heavily on immigrant labor. Companies need these workers, want them to be available and, especially, want them to be here legally. Forged documents are easily available and increasingly sophisticated, and employers are both tired of having to verify them and afraid of the penalties if they make a mistake. A report on immigration law reform, produced by a blue-ribbon task force assembled by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, makes a strong case for the stake that business has in this reform.

Badges refers to law enforcement officers, sheriffs and police chiefs, many of whom now refuse to help the federal government enforce immigration laws. Most agree that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans, and they’re fed up with taking time out from enforcing good laws to deal with the nation’s broken immigration laws.

Bibles refers to churches, many of which are on the frontlines of reform. Many Hispanic immigrants are Catholics, so the Catholic Church has taken the lead in pressing for reform nationally while fighting immigrants’ battles locally. St. Alexis Catholic Church in Beardstown, about an hour and a half southwest of Peoria, is a leading example. Many evangelical churches, more so than mainstream Protestant churches, are also opening their doors to immigrants and working hard to integrate them into their new communities.

Books refer to schools, another frontline institution. K-12 schools everywhere struggle to provide the education young Americans need. The influx of Hispanic children complicates that job, but the real problem is that so many are undocumented—which means they are sometimes enrolled under false names, have no reliable educational records, tend to move often, and if they get through high school, have little chance of going to college. Whatever the burden, schools know they have to educate any student who walks in the door. More importantly, these immigrant children are the workers and citizens of tomorrow. A legal system that turns them into criminals only reduces their future ability to contribute to the Midwestern economy.

A Sea Change in Immigration Patterns
Together, the “Four Bs” comprise a formidable coalition, and politicians in Washington will be hearing from all of them as the immigration debate moves forward. But even as the debate intensifies, a third big change is altering the immigration landscape. This is a demographic change—basically, the replacement of many undocumented Hispanic workers, especially in ag-related industries, with documented immigrants from a galaxy of countries. In many ways, this means that much of what we thought about immigration, including illegal immigration, isn’t true anymore.

A lot of the evidence for this change is anecdotal. Statistics on total immigration, especially of the undocumented variety, are notoriously vague, but there are signs of a sea change in Midwestern immigration patterns. Basically, employers—especially meatpackers—fear more raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency overseeing immigration, which has led them to stop hiring Mexicans and other Hispanics. Instead, they are hiring immigrants from other regions, mostly Asia and Africa, who come here legally under national quotas, through a lottery-type visa system, or as refugees.

A new pork-packing plant recently opened in St. Joseph, Missouri, but only after the owner insisted he didn’t want any ICE raids. As a result, much of his workforce is not Hispanic, but Vietnamese and African (mostly Sudanese).

In Beardstown, the local Cargill pork-packing plant, which employed mostly Mexicans and Guatemalans, got hit by an ICE raid in 2007, following other highly-publicized raids across the Midwest. Since then, ICE has initiated so-called “silent raids”—audits of employment rolls and arrests of employers. As a result, Cargill began recruiting from Puerto Rico, and then sought out other nationalities, especially Africans from French-speaking countries like Togo and the Congo.

In Iowa, the notorious ICE raids on a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, which resulted not only in mass arrests, but the closing of the plant and imprisonment of its owner, have led to major changes. The Mexican influx into old Iowa meatpacking towns like Marshalltown and Storm Lake has stopped, as employers have turned to a spectrum of new immigrants—Pacific Islanders, Burmese refugees, Africans, Ukrainian Pentecostals and others. According to University of Iowa Professor Mark Grey, a leading expert on immigration in Iowa, Latinos are “old news.” Schools in Marshalltown, which once struggled to cope with Spanish-speaking students, now deal with 30 languages being spoken in their hallways, he says.

While some Mexicans are settling down in the towns where they once worked and finding other jobs, many are leaving. But where do they go? No one has really studied this yet. Perhaps they go to cities like Chicago, with huge and long-established Hispanic communities, where jobs are more plentiful. However, the recession dried up several urban jobs, especially in construction, held by many Mexicans. Official statistics indicate that earlier in the recession, illegal immigration from Mexico virtually stopped.

The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington says that between 2005 and 2010, net immigration was flat: Mexicans returning to Mexico balanced out new immigrants coming to the U.S. But Pew adds that the return migration itself was minimal for several reasons, including the lack of jobs in Mexico, and ironically, better border enforcement on the American side, which lowered the chances that any undocumented Mexican could come back to the states once the economy improves.

Eventually, the economy will improve, jobs will come back, and Mexican immigration, which is driven first and last by the lure of jobs, will revive. But the three big changes chronicled here make it certain that when it does, the landscape of immigration in the United States and the challenge to its laws will have been altered forever. iBi