PERRY, Iowa — In 1990, this docile prairie town in central Iowa had 47 Hispanics. But after 15 years of steady migration from Mexico and Central America, Latinos now account for more than a quarter of Perry's 8,000 residents, co-existing with the descendants of the white European immigrants who settled the farm-belt community in the 19th Century.
The demographic upheaval in Perry and other towns in Iowa, all hundreds of miles from the Mexican border, illustrates the extent of immigration into America's heartland.
Since 1990, the number of Hispanics in Iowa has increased from 32,647, which was then 1.2 percent of the state's population, to 112,987, or 3.8 percent of the current population of 2.9 million. Some demographers expect the number to triple again in just over 20 years, increasing to 335,000 by 2030.
The trend has pushed illegal immigration into the forefront of presidential politics — at least among Republicans — as Iowa prepares for its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 3.
The topic reverberates through town hall meetings and Republican debates, with candidates scrambling to outdo one another in getting tough on illegal immigrants as they compete for fed-up voters who constitute a broad and vocal chunk of the GOP political base.
One advocacy group, Campaign for a United America, has responded with a two-week radio blitz to counter what it says is ``toxic, anti-immigrant rhetoric.''
Some 19 percent of Iowa Republicans ranked immigration as the "most important" issue of the 2008 presidential election, according to a McClatchy-MSNBC poll earlier this month. That compares with 11 percent of Republicans nationally and 4 percent among Democrats, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
``The immigration issue, just like security, is right at the top of the list,'' said state Republican Party Chairman Reinhold `` Ray'' Hoffman, adding that Iowans are ``very frustrated'' with what they perceive as unchecked illegal immigration to their state. ``I've never been at a function when someone didn't ask about it.''
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who's moving up in the polls, came to Iowa's immigration center on Thursday to appear at a rally in Marshalltown, the site of a highly publicized round-up of illegal immigrants at a Swift meatpacking plant just over a year ago. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee also crossed the state in a six-day bus tour that included stops in Marshalltown and other communities with surging immigrant populations.
Interviews among longtime Iowans in Marshalltown and Perry reveal a mix of sentiments. Some say that many of the demographic changes have had a positive impact by exposing once all-white communities to cultural diversity and fresh perspectives. At the same time, most say they have little tolerance for those who break the law to enter the country, and they often blame illegal immigration for hurting local wages and increasing crime.
``I'm not prejudiced toward Mexicans. It's the illegal ones who are the problem,'' said Dennis Barnes, 63, of Marshalltown, after attending the Huckabee rally. Barnes said he worked for 19 years at the Swift plant, but left in the 1980s as management began hiring Mexican workers at $3 an hour less than he was making.
``It's a big issue and something has to be done,'' said Robert Ames, a 58-year-old retiree who lives near Marshall. ``There are too many illegals in here, and if we don't do something, there is going to be a bigger problem later.''
The intensity of the issue in Iowa reflects the social tensions that appear as Hispanic job-seekers entered the country, often illegally, to fill jobs in agriculture, the service industry, and meat-packing and related industries. Businesses and community leaders often encouraged the migration to confront chronic labor shortages and low employment, sometimes traveling south of the border to work with sister cities in Mexico.
Meat-packing towns such as Perry and Marshalltown feature Spanish-language storefronts sprinkled among downtown shops and surging Hispanic enrollment in public schools. The arrests of 89 undocumented workers at Marshalltown's Swift plant, part of a multi-state round-up in December 2006, inflamed the outcry over illegal immigration, although Swift said it had worked vigorously to verify employee eligibility.
Perry, northwest of Des Moines, is seemingly one of those communities that have come to accept the changes despite initial tensions, said city administrator Delbert ``Butch'' Niebuhr. ``I'm sure there are some who resent it, but I don't believe that's the highest percentage.''
The community took root in 1869 as a stop on the Des Moines and Fort Dodge Railroad and initially was settled by immigrants from Europe. A message posted on the city's outskirts urges visitors to ``make yourself at home.''
Perry's modern-day transformation, depicted in a documentary called ``A Little Salsa on the Prairie,'' began less than two decades ago with a change of ownership of the local plant — the current owner is Tyson's Fresh Meats — and expanded as word-of-mouth and family connections brought more Hispanic immigrants.
Latinos settled in then-vacant homes in various neighborhoods, rather than in one area, thus blending into the community. Hispanics make up 40 percent of the school enrollment, and many high school graduates have gone to college and returned. Various Hispanic-oriented services are enmeshed in the community.
Renaldo Morales, 50, originally from Nicaragua, moved to Perry from San Diego with his wife and three children in 1993. He's a part-time manager at Tienda Latina, a downtown store stocked with Spanish-language videos and CDs, Latin cuisine and stocking caps with the logos of Latin soccer teams. His 22-year-old daughter attends Drake University, and a son, 21, plans to go to college next year.
A more recent transplant, who identifies himself as Jose Sanchez, came to the United States from El Salvador three years ago and acknowledged that he doesn't have ``papers.'' A sister-in-law picked him up in Houston and brought him to Perry, where he works as a janitor. His wife and two teenage children have since joined him.
Eddie Diaz, the director of the Community Action Agency in Perry, said there undoubtedly are illegal immigrants in the community, but the exact number is impossible to determine. But, legal or illegal, he said, they all share common goals: finding work, buying homes and pursuing ``all the other issues in life.''
With Huckabee moving to the front of the GOP pack, many Iowa voters are now closely scrutinizing his immigration positions.
As Arkansas governor, Huckabee embraced legislation to grant college scholarships to illegal immigrants but, as a presidential candidate, he's toughened his tone with a recently released nine-point plan that requires illegal immigrants to register and then return to their home countries within 120 days to apply for U.S. immigration. Those who stay in the country without registering would be barred from re-entry for 10 years if they're caught.
Huckabee told Marshalltown residents that he welcomed an endorsement by Jim Gilchrist, the controversial founder of the Minuteman Project, a self-described ``citizens' vigilance operation'' that patrols the border. Pro-immigration groups said Huckabee's plan and the Gilchrist endorsement demolish any perception that he's a moderate on immigration.
Nearly all GOP candidates have spoken out against ``amnesty'' — the buzzword for unconditional legalization — although they differ on details. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts appears to be faring well among conservatives by opposing legalization visas, while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is viewed with suspicion because of the perception that New York was a ``sanctuary city'' for illegal immigrants.
State and local leaders acknowledge that social acceptance of the cultural changes varies widely across the state.
``It's a very tough issue,'' says former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, whose administration pursued an orderly flow of immigration to avoid an economic decline. ``Some communities have embraced this. Some communities are probably having a difficult time with it.''
(Fort Worth Star-Telegram researcher Marcia Melton contributed.)