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Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric challenges Iowa's Latino community

Downtown business district in Perry, Iowa, on Nov. 8, 2023.
Rachel Mummey for NPR
Downtown business district in Perry, Iowa, on Nov. 8, 2023.

Updated December 18, 2023 at 7:00 AM ET

America's growing Latino population could play a crucial role in deciding next year's election, especially in battleground states. Approximately every 30 seconds, a Latino in the U.S. becomes eligible to vote, making it the fast-growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. electorate, according to Census Bureau data. Even in states like Iowa, where close to 90% of people identify as white, the Latino vote is becoming increasingly important.

Next month, Iowa will lead off the 2024 Republican primary calendar with its first-in-the-nation caucuses. The Midwestern state is experiencing the same demographic changes that are happening in many parts of the country. Between 2000 and 2020, the Latino population in the state grew by nearly 162%. The Census Bureau predicts that 1 in 4 Americans will be of Latino descent by 2060. In Iowa, Latinos are already the largest minority and make up roughly 7% of its population.

One city that has seen growth in its Latino population is Perry, Iowa. With a population of just under 8,000, Perry is a small rural community surrounded by fertile farmland.

"It's a working class community, a manufacturing town and a railroad town that has been through various transformations over the years," former city council member Eddie Diaz told Morning Edition. "It's just full of people that are gritty and work their butts off to make things happen."

Diaz has called Perry home for most of his life after his family left California in the mid-1990s to look for a better life in the Midwest.

Eddie Diaz, a prominent community leader, in Perry, Iowa, on Nov. 8, 2023.
/ Rachel Mummey for NPR
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Rachel Mummey for NPR
Eddie Diaz, a prominent community leader, in Perry, Iowa, on Nov. 8, 2023.

His family was among the first wave of Latinos from other U.S. states and Latin America to move to Perry and other similar communities. A large reason why people have moved to Perry is its manufacturing and meatpacking industry. A Tyson Foods plant sits less than two miles west of downtown Perry and employs roughly 1,200. Wiese Industries and Progressive Foundry are two other large employers, which produce farm tillage tools and metal castings, respectively.

"They were farm workers, working the strawberry fields in California, and so they were looking for an easier job," he said. They found work at the local meatpacking plant, which Diaz said, is not necessarily easy, but still better than farm work.

Perry is one of only four communities in Iowa where Latinos make up at least a third of the population.

The growing Latino community in Perry celebrates and displays its heritage at the annual "Viva, Perry" Latino Festival, which features a parade, music, food and children's activities. The annual event is organized by nonprofit Hispanics United for Perry, which aims to combat prejudice and racism by organizing community events that bring the city together.

There has also been an increase in Latino-owned businesses in the downtown area and its outskirts, including restaurants, retail stores and auto body shops, according to the Perry Chamber of Commerce.

But as the country enters another election year, the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric that has penetrated large swaths of the Republican Party and its leading presidential candidates could challenge communities like Perry.

Last month, former President Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner, promised to conduct "the largest domestic deportation operation in American history," if he returns to the White House.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would send the military to the border and authorize the use of deadly force against drug cartels, if elected president.

This rhetoric, which emerged during Trump's initial presidential run in 2015, has led to some friction in the community, said Diaz.

"The tenor of conversations got strained. Things that were not as blatant before became much more in your face. So, yeah, there definitely were situations where you heard things that you may not have heard before," he recalled.

Jim Cavner, left, with Jessica Wells, a waitress at Lou's Diner, in Perry, Iowa, on Nov. 8, 2023.
/ Rachel Mummey for NPR
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Rachel Mummey for NPR
Jim Cavner, left, with Jessica Wells, a waitress at Lou's Diner, in Perry, Iowa, on Nov. 8, 2023.

Jim Cavner, who has lived in the area in and around Perry since 1969, is among those in the community who believe the influx of Latinos is causing an increase in crime and economic downturn.

"You know, the people have changed here," Cavner told Morning Edition while sitting at the counter of a roadside diner. "And sometimes it's not so good, in my opinion."

Cavner claims that the rise of Latino residents has brought with it cartel members and drugs. But Perry Police Chief Eric Vaughn disagrees.

"I have lived and worked as an officer in Perry for the last 25 yrs and believe I have some insight into that claim," he told NPR. "We have definitely had waves of immigrants from all over the world. [...] Generally our statistics closely mirror the percentage of those populations in our community."

This year, Perry police have made 443 arrests so far. Of those arrested, 167 identified as Latino, accounting for roughly 38%. Between 2019-2022, Latinos represented about 34% of all arrests made in Perry.

Statistics from the Iowa Department of Public Safety show that drug and narcotic offenses were among the leading crimes in Dallas County, which is where Perry is located. But the county also includes parts of Des Moines' western suburbs. Perry police do not have any information about any cartel activity, according to Chief Vaughn.

Despite these statistics,Cavner is not alone sentiment about the negative changes attributed to migrants, which has become mainstream among many Republicans.

He blames companies like Tyson Foods and its desire to cut labor costs for changing Perry's demographic makeup. "They started recruiting people from everywhere besides here because they didn't pay [as much]," he said. "I mean, this city had a J.C. Penney's, Younkers and all that stuff, but now there's nothing."

Perry, similar to other rural communities has had to deal with outmigration of its younger population. This has caused economic ups and downs. But as Emily Leslie, the owner of clothing store Backwards Boutique, said, the city's downtown "kind of bloomed in the last like nine years."And Latino business owners are part of that revival.

While Diaz and other Latinos who have made Perry their home had to deal with racism and stereotypes in the past, they feel confident that the community will be able to overcome any rifts that might appear over the course of the next election cycle.

"You know, they're kind of accepting us because there's no other way," said Jeffrey Fuentes, who owns an auto body shop in Perry.

Jeffery Fuentes, owner of Quality Auto & Body, in Perry, Iowa, on Nov. 8, 2023.
/ Rachel Mummey for NPR
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Rachel Mummey for NPR
Jeffery Fuentes, owner of Quality Auto & Body, in Perry, Iowa, on Nov. 8, 2023.

And as the demographic change continues across the country, Republicans might have to change their tone in future with regard to migrants or risk losing an increasing share of voters.

While there's no specific statistic that would suggest that Latinos en masse are turning their backs on the Republican Party, studies have shown that the party's anti-immigrant rhetoric affects the well-being of Latinos and can alienate their votes. But just like with any voting block, Latinos are not monolithic and many prioritize other issues, not just immigration.

"Latinos overall, and particularly Latino voters under 30, are highly supportive of the progressive policy agenda that the Biden administration will embrace in 2024," according to a study from the Brookings Institution. "On issues of tax policy, health care, abortion rights, gun safety, climate change, and immigration, a very clear majority of Latino voters support Democraticproposals."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
H.J. Mai
Julie Depenbrock
Julie Depenbrock (she/her) is an assistant producer on Morning Edition. Previously, she worked at The Washington Post and on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. Depenbrock holds a master's in journalism with a focus in investigative reporting from the University of Maryland. Before she became a journalist, she was a first grade teacher in Rosebud, South Dakota. Depenbrock double-majored in French and English at Lafayette College. She has a particular interest in covering education, LGBTQ issues and the environment. She loves dogs, hiking, yoga and reading books for work (and pleasure).