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How Latinos in Iowa respond to anti-immigrant rhetoric from GOP candidates


As of this week, we are officially less than a year out from the next presidential election. And because Iowa will play a big role in setting up the field of Republican candidates with its January caucus, we've spent the last week here talking to voters about how they're thinking and feeling about the next election. A focal point of domestic policy over the past few presidencies has been immigration as the number of illegal border crossings is reaching record numbers. And those vying for the Republican nomination are clear in their attempt to limit immigration, or as Donald Trump said this week at a rally...


DONALD TRUMP: And we will begin the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.

MARTÍNEZ: Statements just like that play to the fears of some Iowa residents, who think an influx of migrants in their communities only brings with it crime and economic downturns.

JIM CAVNER: The people have changed here. That's what I'm trying to say. And sometimes it's not so good.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Jim Cavner. He's lived in and around the city of Perry since 1969, and the city has changed a lot in the last 50-some years. By the year 2060, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that 1 in every 4 Americans are likely to be Latinos. Perry is a glimpse into that future. Latinos here now make up roughly one-third of its residents. As Jim and I sat and chatted at a roadside diner, I could see that he felt annoyed by all this change. So I asked Jim what he thought, as he put it, was not so good.

CAVNER: Maybe the cartel, so many drugs around here. Yeah, it's just - went downhill.

MARTÍNEZ: There's no evidence of a drug cartel in Perry, but tying migrants to crime is a talking point across a large swath of the GOP, a point that's landed for Jim, who pined for the past. Working toward the future is Eddie Diaz, a counterpoint to Jim's unfounded fears. His family was working the strawberry fields in California, and he says they wanted to find an easier job.

EDDIE DIAZ: So they found meatpacking plants, which is not a super easy job. But compared to farm labor, it treated them better. So they moved here, along with many, many other immigrants, for the meatpacking plants.

MARTÍNEZ: Factories like the Tyson plant in Perry draw Latinos from all over who eventually can become part of the city's fabric the way Eddie did becoming a city council member.

DIAZ: It's a working-class community manufacturing town, a railroad town. It's been through various transformations over the years, and it's just full of people that are gritty and worked their butts off to make things happen.

MARTÍNEZ: But even though Latinos have shown to be a benefit to Perry and other similar communities across the country, Eddie says Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric exposed underlying feelings of resentment.

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

MARTÍNEZ: Listening to the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, he wonders if those situations could bubble up again. For example, listen to Ron DeSantis.


RON DESANTIS: We're sending the military to the border. Yes, we will build a border wall, and we will use deadly force against the Mexican drug cartels 'cause I'm sick of them poisoning our kids. I'm sick of them killing our citizens, and I'm sick of them trafficking people into this country.

MARTÍNEZ: Jeffry Fuentes owns a body shop in Perry. He was born in Los Angeles and is of Salvadorian heritage. He moved here two decades ago and is now 33 years old. He volunteers at his church and considers himself an Iowan, despite not getting a friendly welcome when he first got here as a kid.

JEFFRY FUENTES: I experienced some racism and stuff, you know, in the beginning, and I kind of got into trouble with that and stuff, you know, trying to defend myself from that, I remember.

MARTÍNEZ: Jeffry says that life in Perry is pretty good overall, even if some people still have problems with the growing Latino population.

FUENTES: You know, they're kind of accepting us because there's no other way, (laughter) I guess, you know?

MARTÍNEZ: There's power in their numbers, says Jeffry, that can override any fears a GOP nominee may try and whip up again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.