In August, a talk show host in Iowa presented a novel solution to the nation's immigration question. Let undocumented immigrants know that they have a couple of months to get out of the country, she said, and if they don't, they'll be enslaved and forced to build the wall on the Mexican border that many conservatives advocate.
The extremity of that statement -- which was disowned by many Republicans in the key early presidential campaign state -- underscores the growing chorus of Iowa Republicans eager for their party to take a tough stance on illegal immigration. A near-majority of likely Republican caucusgoers support deporting all unauthorized people, according to a poll released this week. The anti-immigrant rhetoric comes as Iowa's immigrant population has more than doubled over the past 25 years, driving fears of job competition and changing communities that could decide whom Iowa voters pick in the crucial early caucuses.
So far, Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner who has called for building a border wall and described Mexicans as criminals, has emerged as the top candidate for Iowa Republicans worried about illegal immigration. They believe that undocumented immigrants are slighting the legal system and taking jobs that legal residents would otherwise fill.
"People who do not follow our laws are given benefits and encouraged to break the law: That’s not a good thing," said undecided voter Cindy Golding, who is party chairwoman in Linn County, the second most populous county in the state, including the city of Cedar Rapids. Immigration "becomes personal, but it's about breaking the law. Just like if someone was a drunk driver and killed your kid: The drunk driving law would become personal," she said.
Golding, who said she hosted a foreign exchange student years ago, expressed frustration because that student was now waiting out the legal process to return to the United States while others have simply broken the law to enter the country. She emphasized that her frustration, and that of her fellow Republicans, was with illegal immigration, not with immigrants themselves.
Roughly half (47 percent) of likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa favor rounding up the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants and deporting them, according to the poll published by the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics this week. Among Trump supporters, support runs at 73 percent.
In 2013, Iowa's immigrant population was 149,122, or 4.8 percent of the 3.1 million people who live there, according to U.S. Census data. One in 13 Iowans is Latino or Asian, and there are about 30,000 Latino voters in the state. In contrast, Iowan's foreign-born population was 1.6 percent in 1990. In 2010, the black population was only 2.9 percent, far below the national average.
Iowa's 40,000 undocumented immigrants paid roughly $64.1 million in state and local taxes in 2010. If those unauthorized immigrants were to have legal status, that total would raise to $82.1 million, according to an analysis by the Immigration Policy Center, the research arm of the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant group.
Many of those undocumented immigrants work in jobs that observers of Iowa politics say aren't necessarily the types an average native-born American would be interested in taking up. They often work in strenuous and dangerous jobs like in slaughter and meatpacking houses for wages that don't attract legal residents.
"There's kind of this disconnect" between Iowa voter impressions of undocumented immigrants taking Americans' jobs and the necessity for those jobs to be filled, said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University in Ames.
When new populations overtake a neighborhood it "creates a lot of tension," Schmidt said. "Then people start talking about, 'Well, are these people taking away jobs from me and my kids?' The answer is, well, maybe, but do you want to work on a cutting line" in a slaughterhouse, he asked.
It's exactly that fear that makes Trump's message sing and has boosted him to the top of a crowded Republican primary field. He began his campaign by saying many Mexicans coming to the United States are rapists. He capitalized on the murder of Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old woman who was shot on a San Francisco pier in July and whose accused killer was a previously detained undocumented immigrant. More recently, he has called for a wall to be built along the southern U.S. border, and said he will make Mexico pay for it.
For many Iowan Republicans, it's an attractive message.
"Normally, that wouldn't seem to be a great topic of discussion in Iowa," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa city and the author of a book on the 2012 Iowa caucuses. But, with the heightened scrutiny on illegal immigration, "it just becomes part of the conversation."
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