STORM LAKE, Iowa –
Julio Barroso was not there last week as President Donald Trump bellowed during his visit to Iowa, closing a job-training roundtable with another tirade on immigration.
“We can’t have people with open borders,” the president said at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, a 15-minute drive from Dubuque.
Sitting with him were Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, both Republicans facing stiff challenges in November. Trump couldn’t thank Blum enough — though he called him by the wrong name a couple of times.
I watched on TV thinking about Julio. I am the editor of a twice-weekly newspaper in this lush, green town of 15,000 or so — we don’t know our exact population because so many are immigrants — nestled among the row crops and hoghouses of northwest Iowa. We make bacon and more: 2,200 workers cut up pigs and turkeys for Tyson; 300 others crack eggs for liquid shipment at Rembrandt Foods 15 miles north; hundreds more distill ethanol from corn.
Julio Barroso is no longer one of them.
In 1996, the world changed for Julio, then a teacher’s pet in the second grade at North School in Storm Lake. He helped other students learn English. Everyone loved him. Then the immigration agents came. They swooped in on the meat-processing plant where his father worked and rounded up scores of undocumented immigrants. Julio’s father was among them.
We wrote an article about the Barrosos when Julio’s friends and teachers wondered where he was the next day. The headline read: “Julio is gone.”
When his family was deported, Julio thought he was going on vacation. Twenty-two years later, he is slaughtering chickens 85 hours a week in Guadalajara, Mexico.
My reporter son Tom contacted him last Wednesday. Julio, now 30, is married and the father of four, working for one-tenth the $18 per hour he could get in Storm Lake. He told Tom that he came back to our town in his late teens and worked at Rembrandt for four years. We didn’t know it. He had a different name and counterfeit papers. In 2009, Julio returned to Guadalajara to care for his ailing father. But the border was locked down and he could not afford a coyote to help him cross back into the U.S. His dream of returning to a decent-paying job was foreclosed.
Julio thinks of what might have been. Like so many Dreamers, he had wanted to go to college, at Iowa Central Community College or Buena Vista University, which offers generous aid to first-generation collegians.
These Dreamers are our vitality, our future. They want to stay here with family, unlike so many of us who push our children off to Chicago or the Twin Cities. As our neighbors, they have prospered with our embrace. In our prairie pothole, a place glaciers left with natural abundance, 9 out of 10 students at the elementary school are immigrants — the schools here are a micro-city where you can hear 30 languages.
World trade and culture come together, mostly peacefully, in our little town. Now, that peace is threatened by our politics — the politics of President Trump.
“Farmers love me,” Trump said in Peosta. In fact, farmers are taking a beating from his tariffs, as Iowa’s three largest customers are China, Mexico and Canada. Farmers hope this war will end before they go broke. They shake their heads at the thought of the $12 billion handout the president has offered. It makes everybody nervous: farmers, bankers, editors, pickup truck dealers, retired professors who still hold a patch of family farm and road warriors selling agricultural chemicals in the Buckle of the Corn Belt.
“This whole trade war, it’s a self-inflicted wound — that’s what really gets to me,” Kevin Cone, an auctioneer and farmer here, said. That sums up how most of us feel.
And the 3,000 or so Latinos in Storm Lake, some of them undocumented (who knows how many?), are worrying not just about jobs but also about their lives in Trump’s America. Will they be the next Julio? Even those with papers will tell you they are on edge. Police officers feel it. They say people who used to talk don’t come forward as much. Here, the police do not arrest people just for being undocumented.
The rest of us know that without them, Buena Vista County could fade away, losing population as 71 of Iowa’s 99 counties have over the last decade. Here, young immigrant families seed a positive birth-to-death ratio. Storm Lake is the rare blue oasis in U.S. Rep. Steve King’s Fourth Congressional District that is growing organically — with brown babies. The crime rate here has been falling over the decade.
King is the congressman who was for building a wall before Trump knew we needed one. “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said in 2013. He says that we should take care not to dilute our culture with immigrants, even though their culture was here before Columbus brought his.
People around here voted for Trump and King, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. They like King because they think he is a straight-talker willing to be blunt, just like Trump. But they don’t like making soybean prices nose-dive for no understandable reason. And they don’t want to run the Julio Barrosos off to Guadalajara when we need young workers in Iowa.
A local banker, George Schaller, whose grandfather, also a George, lured meatpacking here in the 1920s, gave U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowan and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a talking-to a few weeks ago. “The short of it is that Storm Lake needs a solution to immigration, and we’ve needed one for decades,” he told the senator.
We need help in Iowa, especially in Storm Lake.
Tyson needs good maintenance technicians and will pay them more than $20 per hour. But young, white workers aren’t bidding for those jobs. They’ve moved off for engineering degrees and other greener pastures.
“The jobs are there. Where are the skilled workers to fill those jobs?” the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, asked at the Peosta roundtable.
Where? They are in the shadows in America. Or they are in Mexico.
George Schaller and Kevin Cone don’t want to scare off the Latina attending Buena Vista University who dreams of teaching. Iowans are ashamed when refugee children are caged like criminals. We all want order at the border. And we wish that Julio could come home to Storm Lake someday.
We need him and miss him.
Art Cullen, the editor and co-owner of the Storm Lake Times in Iowa, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017 and is the author of the forthcoming book, “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope From a Heartland Newspaper.” He wrote this article for the New York Times.