Skip to main content

Two voters hold up a sign for Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio as presidential candidate Donald Trump, center, and wife, Melania visit Saint Francis of Assisi Church, a caucus site, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in West Des Moines , Iowa.Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press

A town of two bars and 17 churches, Sioux Center is agrarian, Christian and staunchly Republican. Its congressman, Steve King, once joked that every time the U.S. lets in an immigrant, it should also deport a leftist. During the Iowa caucuses, Republican Party front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both anti-immigration hardliners, made sure they made their cases to the party faithful, a small enclave of 7,000.

But the nativist bluster doesn't rate with many Republicans here. They don't just need foreign workers in Sioux Center, but they welcome them. Like many agricultural areas across the country where Americans are set to vote in the primary season, Sioux Center depends on immigrants and would likely implode without them.

On Monday night, Mr. Cruz eked out a victory over Mr. Trump and Marco Rubio.

Hours before the caucusing began, Sioux Center's chief of police, Paul Adkins, said he doesn't agree with the front-runners' rhetoric on immigration and was still undecided on which Republican would get his vote. "I believe that people should be allowed to come to the country and be legal citizens."

Officially at least, about 15 per cent of the town's residents are Mexicans and Guatemalans, many of whom moved to the area to take agricultural jobs that officials here say most locals don't want: bloody scutwork in the slaughterhouses or milking cows. Others estimated the unofficial percentage of Spanish-speakers as high as 30 per cent of the population.

Apart from his own principles, Chief Adkins's concerns are also practical: Without Latinos, he said, the dairy and meatpacking companies would struggle to find workers, leaving major businesses in the area to founder.

There is wider evidence to support his assertion about the need for foreign agricultural workers. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least six out of 10 are undocumented. Removing that entire population would lop off a slice of the American economy roughly the size of Texas's annual GDP.

"I have concerns with people who say they'll build a wall and have Mexicans pay for it," Chief Adkins said. "That's not the way the world works. That's why I struggle with who to vote for."

Rather than hearing about immigration, Chief Adkins wanted concrete proposals on issues such as abortion and gun control. As for Mr. Trump's visit, he said the candidate talked only about himself for an hour and 20 minutes.

Sioux Center defies Iowa's stereotype as a Midwestern bastion of whiteness and corn. The Latino culture here is inextricably linked to the town's core identity. Driving around the main drag, one sees a Mexican bakery, restaurants and a few tiendas. At the local library, one hears Spanish and English. Even some of its signs are bilingual.

On Highway 75 – not far from one of the town's largest employers, the microwavable bacon-maker Golden Crisp – is the busy Mexican restaurant La Lupita, where both English-speaking and Hispanic guests gathered at simple tables, while Spanish-language TV played loudly in the background. Its proprietor, Hermina Peña, has lived in the U.S for more than two decades and does not speak English. She told The Globe and Mail in Spanish that she has never encountered any bigotry.

A waitress standing next to Ms. Peña, Vanessa Salcedo, said there is only a little overt racism here. What alarmed her, however, was Mr. Trump's suggestion that Mexicans in the U.S. were criminals, drug dealers and rapists.

"That bothered everybody," Ms. Salcedo said.

Asked if she was going to caucus for the Republican Party in a few hours, she said she was no longer a Republican. "If the Republicans are going to be racist, obviously not."

A community with Dutch roots, Sioux Center has a strong religious streak that has historically embraced immigrants. As the Vietnam War was winding down in the mid-1970s, churches organized for the adoption of Laotian families, most of whom eventually moved out of the city. The next major wave of immigration came about 15 years ago, when churches started reaching out to destitute Mexicans. The town soon became a magnet for other Spanish-speaking immigrants.

At first, the single men caused some problems. Residents say there were a few minor law-and-order problems. Chief Adkins said there was some partying, which in this God-fearing town stood out. So did parking one's car on the front lawn. "We just don't do that," the police chief mused.

City manager Paul Clousing described Sioux Center's reception of immigrants as continuing an American tradition of acceptance. "We see them as assets to our nation and our town. They're hard-working, just as our ancestors were 100 years ago."

Mr. Clousing also described the process as a calling. "Our religious background is to be accepting," he said. "To share God's words with others."

As assured as he is about his city and its immigrants, he still didn't know who he would caucus for on Monday. Jeb Bush has experience and substance, but his campaign has no traction. Ted Cruz was a possibility, but his stance on ending federal subsidies on the fuel alternative ethanol would damage local farmers. No one, in his estimation, wants to wrestle with the true issues around immigration.

And Donald Trump? Along with his proposal to deport illegal immigrants and his avoidance of questions, Mr. Clousing was not impressed with Mr. Trump's language. "He said he was going to work his ass off for us," he said.

Which for this farming community, and others across the United States, may not be a blessing.

Follow me on Twitter @Craigoffman