SAN DIEGO -- What's the matter with Iowa?
Maybe I'm experiencing a little geographic jealously. When I moved to California, I assumed that San Diego -- as a border town -- would be ground zero in the immigration debate. So when did Sioux City, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids cut in line?
If Iowa is, in fact, the new center of the immigration debate, what sense does that make? If you've been paying attention, you know that despite the lip service given to border security and fighting terrorism, much of the debate is driven by demographics and the concern that the United States is becoming too Latino. In some parts of the country, such anxiety might make sense. But who would have imagined you'd find traces of it in a region that is still overwhelmingly Anglo?
According to the 2000 Census, Iowa is about 94 percent white, 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent black and 1 percent Asian.
That is not exactly a majority-minority state in the offing. And yet, we're told the outcome of the Iowa caucuses -- especially on the Republican side -- could come down to the candidates' views on immigration.
For that, you can blame those Iowa voters who, from the sound of it, can't find anything else to talk about at town hall meetings throughout the Hawkeye State.
That's fine. Folks in that red state can talk about immigration until they're blue in the face. But they should at least have the decency to talk about it honestly.
Instead, some of them give the impression that Mexican immigrants are launching a full-scale invasion of Iowa, soaking up public benefits, subverting the culture and undermining the English language. They never acknowledge that immigrants are making their way to the heartland because someone there is offering them jobs, profiting from their labor and pumping tax dollars into the local economy to the benefit of everyone -- even the complainers.
Someone needs to tell that to the retiree who grilled Fred Thompson at a gathering at the Music Man Square museum in Mason City. Concerned that Mexicans were plotting to retake the Southwest and insisting that illegal immigrants were a burden to taxpayers, the woman finally quit beating around the bush and got around to what really bothered her.
Surprise: It's the changing culture, and specifically how -- even in Iowa -- the Spanish language pops up at the most inopportune moments. In what was obviously a gross exaggeration, the questioner claimed that, when Iowans call the power company, "everything is in Spanish" and that she finds it all "sickening."
You want sickening? Consider Thompson's lily-livered response. "You are so, so right," he told the retiree. He even suggested that English be the national language. Instead of providing leadership by telling the woman to knock off the nativist lingo and acknowledge that illegal immigration is a self-inflicted wound, Thompson opted to pander. Just like everyone else.
Doesn't any of this immigration narrative sound familiar to native Iowans? It should. Nearly 100 years ago, another ethnic group found itself on the cultural skillet in that state. Its members had last names such as "Schultz" or "Braun" or "Kalb."
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dale Maharidge points out in his insightful book, "Denison, Iowa," the first German immigrants arrived in Iowa shortly after it became a state in 1846. For several decades, they built "Germantowns," created German schools and churches, and founded German brotherhood associations. And, about this, no one seemed to mind much.
But then the United States entered World War I in 1917. And an anti-German crusade began. It may have been cloaked in concerns over the war, but it quickly focused on the German language, German newspapers and German culture.
In Denison, which is now a town of about 8,000 people, German-Americans were beaten and piles of German books were set afire. English-only laws were passed.
Critics will reject the comparison and point out the obvious: that many of the Latino immigrants now streaming into Iowa are coming illegally and that the Germans came legally.
That's true. German immigrants who helped settle Iowa in the late 1800s did come legally. There was no way to come illegally until the 1920s. And yet it made little difference. They were still mistreated. That's because the issue was never legality. It was the same thing that fuels the discussion today: fear of change.
It all makes for an ugly chapter in history that Iowans would be wise not to repeat.
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