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Iowa Caucuses: A View On Immigration From Denison

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is caucus day. And leading up to this point, Rachel, you and I have been driving around the state, making our way here to meet up in Des Moines. I was with our editor Will Jones and producer Ashley Westerman, and one place we stopped was Denison, a city in western Iowa. We were getting a tour there from Alma Puga, who lives there.

ALMA PUGA: An Asian market right there - Lovan. There's a Latino hairstylist. And there's the pasteleria. They make cakes and stuff.

GREENE: Are they open?

PUGA: Yeah. They are open.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So obviously, a bakery - you go in, right?

GREENE: Of course, I went in.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENE: I did not get a cake, though, which is maybe the biggest regret of this entire trip. The place smelled delicious.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So Iowa, as a state, it's, like, 85% white. So clearly, it sounds like this town might be a demographic exception.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, Denison has been far more diverse for years. It's actually split 50-50 between whites and minorities. There are Latinos. There's a Sudanese population. Alma, our guide, her family came from Mexico when she was a child.

PUGA: My dad had a friend that lived here. So he told him to come over here; there was plenty of jobs. And so we came.

MARTIN: Jobs like what?

GREENE: A lot in the meatpacking plants in Denison. Immigrants have - they've been working there. They started coming a few decades ago. But race and immigration have been such big topics in our politics today that I wondered if anything has changed, you know, in this diverse town that is surrounded by very white, very conservative areas. So I want to take you inside this Denison institution. It's called Conk's. It's a family restaurant that is owned by Eric Skoog.

What's the history of the restaurant Cronk's? It's not called Skoog's.

ERIC SKOOG: No, no, no.

GREENE: So it must have existed before you.

SKOOG: Cronk's was the name of the guy that built the place. Nobody ever had enough guts to change the name.

GREENE: So Eric has lived here for 40 years. He's a Republican. He's been on city council. He was sitting with Nathan Mahrt, who's an independent voter and former mayor of Denison. These guys know each other well.

NATHAN MAHRT: In a town this size, you pretty much know everybody...

SKOOG: Yeah.

MAHRT: ...And everything about everybody.

GREENE: So as you look at this long journey that this town has been through, I mean, is a more diverse Denison a better Denison?

MAHRT: Yeah, by far.

SKOOG: It's been a learning process. Is it a good thing? We'll know in 50 years.

GREENE: I'm still trying - I'm being the good reporter. I'm just...

SKOOG: No, that's fine.

GREENE: I'm just - no, I'm just wondering what - like, I mean, you were so quick to say, like, yes, it's been good, and you, you're like...

SKOOG: No, I - no, it's been good. I mean...

MAHRT: It's caused a great many people a lot of anxiety.

SKOOG: Yeah. And for a example - there's an older couple that was here. This is 15 years ago. And they were scared because they had bought a house in town, and they were coming off the farm, and Hispanic families moved in on both sides of them - not very comfortable. And there was kind of a little animosity there at first.

And all of a sudden, one day, he was out putting the ladder up - mind you, he's 81 years old - and cleaning out his gutters. And his Hispanic neighbor came over and said, down, please come down; I do, I do. And he got him off the ladder, and he went up and he cleaned out the guy's gutters for him. And his wife thought that was so cool. So she went inside. And she had just baked an apple pie. She brought it out to the gentleman and said, here - give this to your family, and thank you for helping us, you know, and - or something like that.

GREENE: I mean, that sounds beautiful.

SKOOG: It is. There's neat stuff like that, you know. And like I said, I'll tell you the rest of the story in 50 years.

MAHRT: One thing, though - when the dialogue is how it's been the last few years with Trump in office, it's caused a retraction of investment to where they don't feel like they can be part of America so much.

GREENE: Do you think Trump is stirring stuff up here that hadn't been there?

MAHRT: I think it was here, but it didn't have a voice.

GREENE: From listening to Nathan there, it sounded like the mood has changed in Denison in recent years.

UNIDENTIFIED IOWA RESIDENT #1: Sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED IOWA RESIDENT #2: Oh, this goes back...

GREENE: And we got a feel for that when we talked to Bryan Pena.

Is that your dad?

BRYAN PENA: Yeah, he's my dad.

GREENE: Oh, nice. You're as old as the store.

Bryan's family emigrated from Mexico years ago. They run a little grocery store in Denison. Bryan remembers being in high school here in 2016. His government teacher would hold these debates in class, sometimes about immigration, and Bryan just didn't like how some classmates spoke about immigrants.

PENA: They'd say very hurtful things, like why don't we just send them all away? Like, they don't matter. Just blatantly saying that you want a certain group of people to leave just because of what a man is trying to make you believe is just very ignorant to me.

GREENE: Are you talking about Trump?

PENA: Yeah.

GREENE: And your classmates were repeating some of that...

PENA: Yeah, they...

GREENE: ...Trump's language?

PENA: Yeah. Pretty much grew up with these people, and I never really knew that side of them until I was in that class. It was just like, in a sense, seeing their true colors for the first time.

GREENE: So Bryan Pena tonight is going to be caucusing for Bernie Sanders, and that makes our tour guide, Alma Puga, really happy. She works with LULAC - that's the League of United Latin American Citizens - and she tries to mobilize Latino voters. The message is, if you want to control the destiny of a community like Denison, you've got to vote. Now, LULAC doesn't endorse candidates, but Alma personally has been volunteering for Joe Biden. She likes his record on immigration.

PUGA: Also, under the Obama administration, they passed DACA, which is the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (ph). Just the way he advocates for Latinos and stuff. And I know what you're going to ask me and stuff with...

GREENE: How do you know? What do you think I was going to ask you?

PUGA: (Laughter) Well, because I've had other reporters interview me, too.

GREENE: (Laughter) I'm so curious. What is the next natural question?

PUGA: (Laughter) Why Biden if, you know, under the Obama administration, he deported more immigrants than any other administration?

GREENE: OK, can I be totally honest? That's exactly what I was going to ask you.

PUGA: Yes, yes (laughter). Well, I've already answered it multiple times. And I think it was because he didn't have the power. I mean, he was just a vice president. So...

GREENE: And can you just reflect a little bit just on kind of what Denison represents as a community in today's political environment?

PUGA: It's - I think it's, like, a target. I mean, it can be used as a target for Trump if he was to come to Denison because a lot of, you know, the community members have a family member that's undocumented. It's like a target, pretty much.

GREENE: And does that include you? Can I ask?

PUGA: Yeah. It would.

GREENE: So you have your own family members out there who you worry about when you listen to the president?

PUGA: Yes. Of course.

GREENE: So Rachel, that's the view from one community in western Iowa.

MARTIN: That's so interesting.

GREENE: Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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