PERRY, Iowa — The Hispanic businesses lining Second Street are a testament to the immigrant presence in Perry, Iowa, one of the most diverse cities in a state that isn’t known for its ethnic diversity. But notably absent from the Republican candidates’ campaigning in the lead-up to Monday’s Iowa caucus was any interest in reaching out to Latino voters here.
“No, they aren’t offering us anything,” said Eduardo Diaz-Cárdenas, 32, a former city council member. “Here in Iowa, they are more focused on reaching the most conservative voters.”
In Perry, one in three residents is Hispanic – compared with the rest of Iowa, where Latinos only make up 5 percent of the state’s population of 3 million.
“The problem is there are very few Latinos who go [to political events] because we know they are going to use Hispanics like a punching bag,” Diaz-Cárdenas said.
On Monday, Diaz-Cárdenas attended an event at Hotel Pattee, the political center of the city, to see GOP candidate Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, who has garnered more media interest after surging in the polls.
“We have to control the border. We have to enforce the law,” Santorum said before a group of some 70 people, half of whom were reporters.
Diaz-Cárdenas, who is a Democrat, said Santorum’s message resonates better with him than candidates like Michelle Bachmann, who he says have repeated “incorrect statistics” about immigrants and attacked undocumented youth wanting to go to college.
“(Santorum) didn’t make us feel like we weren’t human beings,” he said.
With the exception of Newt Gingrich – who has said he would look for a humane way to deal with undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for decades – Republican presidential candidates largely have focused on border enforcement.
They effectively have supported the policies that led to what was at the time the largest single-site workplace immigration raid in U.S. history – the 2008 raid on a Postville meatpacking plant in which nearly 400 people who detained and deported.
“You have to take the bull by the horns and fix what is already here,” said Rosa González, 44, who founded the group Hispanics United for Perry (HUP) in this city. “It seems very unrealistic to me for them to say we have to get rid of everyone. I don’t think it’s possible,” she said.
In 2008, González and other community leaders responded to the Postville raid by creating an emergency response plan to help immigrants in Perry in case something similar were to happen to them.
Not all Latinos in Perry are following the electoral process closely or planning to participate in the caucuses. Some, like María Flores, are immigrants who can’t vote.
“They promise a lot and then they don’t deliver on anything,” said Flores, 32, who has lived in Perry since 1998.
Others say they aren’t interested because language barriers have been an obstacle to getting information about the political platforms.
“Since I don’t speak English, I don’t have much contact with politics,” said Salvador Mesquitán, a 70-year-old U.S. citizen originally from Zacatecas, Mexico.
Perry has historically been a destination for immigrant communities, but it hasn’t always been welcoming to them.
González came to Perry in 1995, because she had family who worked here. But at the time there was distrust toward immigrants and it was difficult for her to find a place to rent.
"You never know where you are going to end up by necessity," said González, who is now a U.S. citizen.
Things soon began to change. González said the positive economic contributions of immigrants, who started to open their own businesses, was part of the reason for this transformation.
“Perry has been a model to follow for other communities that have experienced an increase in immigrants,” she said.
The city has not approved any ordinances targeting undocumented immigrants and city police are not in the practice of persecuting this segment of the population, she said.
“Most Republicans and whites here understand that this is a situation that needs to be addressed and they don’t agree with deporting families,” said Díaz-Cárdenas. “As (we’ve done) in this community, the country needs to find a middle ground they can agree on.”
The city’s mayor, Jay Pattee, endorsed the “Iowa Compact,” a declaration of principals that aimed to enforce immigration laws in a humane way that did not separate families.
“The Republican candidates leave much to be desired,” said Pattee.
Phil Stone, a Republican member of the Perry City Council, said immigrants in the city have assimilated very well to the culture and there is a lot of acceptance of “legal immigrants.”
“Most people here in Perry distinguish between legal and illegal,” he said. “We don’t put all immigrants in the same box; they are two completely separate things.”
Yet despite the candidates’ emphasis on immigration, various observers here say undocumented immigrants -- who account for an estimated 70,000 people in the state -- will not be a defining factor in Iowa’s conservative vote.
“The biggest fallacy is believing that the immigration issue is crucial for voters,” said Geofrey Fischer, project coordinator for the Iowa immigration Education Coalition, a bipartisan organization promoting dialogue about immigration.
Fischer said adopting anti-immigrant positions is counterproductive for communities.
“[Cities like] Perry, Iowa, wouldn’t be where they are today if it weren’t for the arrival of immigrants,” he said, referring to the community’s economic development.
Even Republicans, such as Stone – who have a more moderate position on immigration and agree with Gingrich’s more humanitarian platform – are going to decide who to vote for based on other factors.
“I’m going to support [Mitt] Romney for other reasons that have nothing to do with his position on immigration,” Stone said.
“He’s the one that has the best chance of winning the presidency.”
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