DENISON, Iowa -- From Mexico and beyond, they come month after month to this remote town on the windblown prairie -- some with visas and some with forged identities, some guided by smugglers and some drawn by loved ones.
They come to work in the meat-processing plants, earning up to $15 an hour killing pigs, pulling ribs, packing bacon. They come for a chance at a prosperous future.
In coming, they also give towns like this one a shot at a brighter tomorrow.
Immigration, both legal and not, has turned Denison -- population 7,300 -- into an unlikely boom town.
And not only Denison. Across the Midwest, a dozen or so small communities and several larger towns are drawing enough Latino immigrants to defy the bleak demographic trends that have been draining rural America.
In almost every farm town with a meatpacking plant, migrant workers arriving in just the last few years have fueled astounding growth. The out-of-the-way community of Madison, Neb., has grown 11% in the past decade to almost 2,400 as its Latino population surged sixfold to more than 800.
Worthington, Minn., expanded 13% to more than 11,000 people as nearly 2,000 immigrants put down roots. On the far northeast fringe of Iowa, tiny Postville is madly building homes; the population there has swelled by 50% to more than 2,200 with the arrival of nearly 500 Latinos.
There are still many more Latinos in the Los Angeles region than in the entire Midwest (4.2 million compared to 3 million). But the Latino population in the heartland has nearly doubled in the last decade. One Kansas meatpacking town, Dodge City, is now about 40% Latino.
Civic leaders are often delighted, willing to work through the inevitable strains for a chance to keep their schools open, their playgrounds noisy, their Main Streets bustling.
“Immigration is what’s keeping us alive,” said Bill Wright, school superintendent in Denison.
For their part, most immigrants soon find a way to make the communities their own. They earn more money packing meat in Iowa than picking berries in California. That’s what attracts them to small towns in the Corn Belt. But then they open their own restaurants, sell Mexican sweets from small bakeries, import pinatas and dried chiles to stock the shelves of the groceries they run.
They urge their friends in Mexico to give Iowa a try -- and pretty soon, it’s home.
There may not be a Spanish-language radio station within tuning range. Or a single police officer she can communicate with, except in makeshift sign language. But 27-year-old Nadia Castanela finds it comfortable in Denison. She works here slicing pork eight hours a day, six days a week. “It’s a quiet town where we can live in peace,” she said.
“I like it here,” echoes Jose Ramon Regalado, 25, who works in a meatpacking plant in Marshalltown in central Iowa. He went home for a visit a few years ago and found he had more friends in Iowa than in Mexico. “There were only four or five guys left in my village,” he says.
Midwesterners are often unsure whether to embrace the new arrivals as saviors for bringing life back to fast-emptying towns -- or fear them as outsiders who will change the community’s character.
Nowhere is that tension more acute than in Iowa, where demographers for years have been warning that, without immigration, desolation looms.
The state’s population is shrinking and aging. Sixty percent of Iowa’s college graduates leave the state. The rural birthrate is low -- in places, less than half the state average. At least 40% of Iowa’s cities lost population in the 1990s.
Against that backdrop, Denison presents a striking contrast. New homes are sold as soon as they’re built; the mayor begs developers to work faster. A $1.2-million early childhood education center just opened. New soccer fields are in the works and the town is planning a skateboard park.
Denison’s population rose 11% in the 1990s -- propelled almost entirely by immigrants drawn by the three meat-processing plants. A decade ago, Latinos made up just 2% of the population. Today the official figure is 17%, and local officials say it may actually be double that. More than half of the children in this year’s kindergarten class speak primarily Spanish.
“The packinghouses are our bread and butter. We rely on the Hispanics who work there to grow our community,” said Sue Pitts, director of the Chamber of Commerce.
It’s the same story in half a dozen other small communities across Iowa. In rural Tama, population 2,700, the Latino population has grown from a handful to 263 over the last decade. Mayor Richard Gibson warns that a housing shortage could develop. “It’s a challenge that a lot of communities our size would like to have,” he said.
Even cities big enough not to fear for their survival rely on Latino workers to keep their economies humming.
Marshalltown, population 26,000, has absorbed a remarkable surge in immigrants -- more than 3,000 in the last decade by census numbers, and twice that by local estimates. Such growth has allowed the local packinghouse to expand and sustain a $60-million annual payroll.
“Whether people like it or not, Marshalltown would certainly suffer if those jobs went away,” Police Chief Lon Walker said.
The influx came into tragic focus last week with the discovery of 11 bodies in a railroad grain car that arrived in Denison after four months in storage. Among the dead were two Mexican cousins who had paid a smuggler to sneak them onto the train in the hopes of reaching construction jobs in Florida.
They could just as easily have been aiming for the Midwestern packinghouses.
Mark Grey, who has studied the trend for years, estimates that from 30% to 60% of the immigrants in Iowa are in the United States illegally.
Civic leaders “seem to realize that this phenomenon is here to stay -- and that these immigrants are critical to the economic and social health of their communities,” said Grey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa.
Yet complaints that Iowa is fast becoming another California echo loud. A statewide poll by the Des Moines Register last year found 54% of respondents opposed to any increase in immigration.
When Gov. Tom Vilsack proposed recruiting 300,000 foreigners to bolster the state’s labor force, public outrage forced him to retreat.
Here in Denison, many locals relish the chance to taste fajitas and learn more about their new neighbors. Some are even studying Spanish.
But there is resentment as well.
Mariela Pacheco, 24, a waitress in a Mexican restaurant, feels it. “The majority of people are very good. But there are others who look at us not as equals,” she says.
Mayor Ken Livingston senses the anger too. He hears it in the rumors he is forever swatting down: The Mexicans are all on welfare; the Mexicans pay no taxes.
“A lot of old wives’ tales,” Livingston says wearily, insisting that health care, law enforcement and other services are not strained by the new residents. Under federal law, even legal immigrants have limited access to public assistance.
Some immigrants, of course, avoid taxes by working in under-the-table jobs. But those in the meatpacking plants and other jobs -- whether legal or not -- pay federal, state and local taxes, just like anyone else.
Their children require bilingual aides at school, but Supt. Wright says the money the state pays the district for each new student more than covers the cost. In fact, thanks to the growing enrollment, he can maintain art, sports and music programs that other rural districts have long since cut.
But the tensions persist.
Denison is a town where the newspaper prints a police blotter so exhaustive it lists a sweatshirt stolen at a homecoming dance and explains in detail how Carol Ann Williams drove her 1999 Plymouth Breeze into a concrete wall at the Hy-Vee market.
In other words, everyone doesn’t just know everyone, they know everyone’s business too.
The new migrants threaten that cozy insularity.
“The Mexicans have inundated us,” complains Jerry Brus, 58, a local farmer. “They’re taking over the town.”
Suddenly, folks born and raised in northwestern Iowa hear the buzz of Spanish behind them and more Spanish in front of them as they wait in line to cash a check, mail a letter or buy a quart of milk.
“We don’t know what they’re saying,” A.E. Haptonstall, 72, says angrily, stabbing his cigarette butt in an ashtray at Cronk’s Cafe.
His wife, JoAnn, 69, tries to soothe him. “It’s just change,” she says.
Their friend, Ronald Totten, interrupts. “We can’t change as fast as this,” he says bitterly.
Totten, 64, can pinpoint the precise year the change began -- 1981. That’s when the biggest packinghouse in town slashed wages.
Meat-processing jobs used to be coveted here. Even without a high school degree, packinghouse jobs paid up to $13 an hour -- good money in the 1970s.
“Every driveway had either a motorboat or a snowmobile or a camper in the yard. The money was flowing,” recalls Jerry Arn, 62, who moved to Denison in 1979.
The good times ended soon after. The giant meat-processing firm IBP introduced new methods that transformed the work into a low-skill, assembly-line grind. Plants cut wages by up to 40%.
The packinghouse jobs no longer looked so good. In any case, the local labor pool was beginning to dry up. The farm crisis of the 1980s drove countless rural families into cities. Parents began to push their kids into college.
Desperate for employees, meatpackers sent buses to recruit workers in Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border. By the mid-'80s, many plants in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas were staffed mostly with Latinos.
A decade later, word spread about similar jobs in Iowa and Minnesota.
Migrant workers fed up with California’s expensive housing headed for the Midwest, joining a steady stream of newcomers direct from Latin America.
Today, immigrants work nearly half the packinghouse jobs in Denison, most of them earning a minimum of $9 an hour plus benefits.
It’s a life that satisfies 26-year-old Juan Sanchez.
Sanchez arrived in 1997 after three years in California, where he had worked in the fields at a Watsonville nursery for $4.50 an hour. At first, he said, he felt uneasy in Iowa. The Latino population was so small. Some locals gave him dirty looks. The winter cold took him by surprise.
But Sanchez was soon trimming pork in Denison for $13.80 an hour, more than double today’s minimum wage. Rent is cheap. The town feels safe. The rural landscape resembles central Mexico. “I’m already used to it here,” he said.
As they settle into new lives as Midwesterners, Denison’s immigrants often find their way to the battered trailer where Joe and Rosie Chavez sell beans, salsa and other staples.
The Chavezes were among the first Latinos in town, arriving from Mexico in 1963. Rosie worked for the packinghouses. Joe, a mechanic, learned English and made friends quickly. He worked for the city for years and coached Little League. They put their six kids through college.
Joe Chavez, now 69, is eager to help this recent wave of newcomers make it here too.
“I tell them, with papers, without papers, come here and work -- you can do well in this country. You can make it a community,” he said.
“Denison, it’s my home.”