A Marshalltown Plan for Immigration

Below, Tom Palmer mentions Cato adjunct scholar Don Boudreaux’s wonderful essay on the ability of today’s United States to absorb immigrants as compared to our storied Ellis Island immigration heyday. I’d like to add a point that many Lou Dobbs fans seem not to fully grasp. Not only can we accommodate more people, we need more people.

I grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa. I’ll tell you, they’re not running out of space in Marshalltown. From the historic courthouse at the center of town, a ten to fifteen minute drive in any direction will put you in a cornfield. Over the past decade or so, Marshalltown has seen an influx of Mexicans – many from a single village, Villachuato – who came to work at the Swift meatpacking plant, or in the fields in the summer. This has caused a bit of friction in a middle-class town with a largely German and Scandinavian heritage – but just a bit. In fact, many small Midwestern towns like Marshalltown have been fighting for decades to hold on to a dwindling population. This is a real problem. Marshalltown businesses, for example, receive less than one application for each new job opening.

In 2001, with typical Iowan civic spirit, then-mayor Floyd Harthun ventured down to Villachuato to see if he could learn something about Marshalltown’s newest workers and taxpayers. Here’s part of an account of that trip, from a 2002 article in Governing Magazine (for state and local governments), which illustrates the symbiotic relationship between Mexican immigrants and towns like Marshalltown:

[Villachuatans] account for about half of the 1,900 employees at the largest employer in Marshalltown, a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant that also generates 1,200 additional jobs at related companies. Mexicans also have opened several new businesses in town, and their children have propped up sagging enrollment in Marshalltown schools. Not surprisingly, Mayor Harthun was eager to learn more about them – in part, because he wanted them to stay. “I was being self-serving,” he admits. “We need people.”

When Harthun reached Villachuato, several hours’ drive west of Mexico City, he was surprised to discover just how much the people there need Marshalltown as well. “About a third of the license plates were from Marshall County,” he recalls. He learned that Villachuatans who live in Marshalltown sent money to provide electricity and underground water in their native town, helped finance road-paving projects and restored the town church and town plaza. As Harthun visited with his hosts, he also started to understand something else: The villagers in Mexico are in close contact with their friends and family members in Iowa. “If a job opens up in Marshalltown,” he says, “the people in Villachuato know about it even before I do.”

Marshalltown (population 29,000) and Villachuato (about 15,000) are examples of what [University of Northen Iowa professor Mark] Grey calls “unofficial sister cities” – pairs of communities in Iowa and Mexico whose economies have become interdependent as a result of the flow of workers across the border. As Harthun learned, these relationships have developed out of view of the mainstream media and established institutions, following a logic rarely acknowledged in today’s polarized debates over immigration. And they show that while Americans often view immigration as an act of graciousness on our part, for many communities, it is becoming an economic development strategy as well, possibly making the difference between prosperity and economic decline.

What I love about this story (other than the fact that it makes me proud of my hometown) is the way it illustrates the positive-sum nature of exchange and human cooperation. Nobody loses when Marshalltown and Villachuato become sisters. It is maddening to see the Minutemen stringing barbed-wire along the Mexican border because that is an attempt to erect a literal barrier to the exercise of our natural moral right to cooperate – to deny our ability to make strangers our friends (our figurative siblings, even) through exchange. I agree that there is something terribly wrong when millions of people have to break the law to excercise their moral rights. But the problem isn’t that people are trying and succeeding to exercise them. The problem is poor legislation that fails to acknowledge, accommodate, and protect those rights. We can do better.

Marshalltown, a typical apple pie and baseball Midwestern town, has a great physical infrastructure, outstanding public schools, and more than enough room, physically and culturally, for tortillas and futbol. But it can’t merely accommodate more people, it needs them. There are thousands of Marshalltowns in this country (though no other may have my heart) that new immigrants could benefit and that could benefit new immigrants.

Now, part of the difficulty with immigration in a huge country like ours is that a lot of newcomers never make it out of the region of entry. This does place an undue burden of absorption on border states and port cities. No doubt most rural Mexicans have never heard of such exotic, faraway places as Iowa or Nebraska. But they should hear of them; they are needed there. Perhaps immigrants ought to be encouraged, like subway riders, to make space around the doors and move to the center.