The dominant anti-immigrant narrative in this country -- despite paeans to the mythical "melting pot" we read about in grade-school social-studies textbooks -- is that immigrants take. They come here to take our jobs. They take up social services. They take formerly pristine street corners and make them disorderly by standing around looking for work. They take their earnings back home rather than spend them in the local community. These are the things I hear repeated on crap cable shows like Glenn Beck's or when I sit down to dinner with my conservative relatives.
Several years ago I did some reporting in a small town -- Milan, Missouri -- where around 50 percent of the 2,000 or so residents were recent Latino immigrants who had come for jobs at the town's pork-processing plant. The fascinating thing about Milan (pronounced Mi-lan, not Mi-lan like the city in Italy) was that, prior to the pork plant opening and the immigrant influx, the tiny burg had been all but dead. A small chicken processor provided jobs for a few hundred residents, but most businesses were shuttered, young people were moving away to find work in other cities, and the downtown consisted of a series of empty storefronts. While it was by no means a seamless transition from a town of mostly white, longtime residents to one that was nearly half Latino newcomers, at the time of my visit it was undeniable that Milan was more alive and more vibrant because of its new residents -- despite what some of the old-timers said about immigrants "taking" resources from their community.
This narrative wasn't in the forefront of my mind as I watched the news unfold last May about the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. In Postville, Iowa, a town the same size as Milan, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials detained almost 400 undocumented workers. In the wake of the raid, I followed the stories of the separated families and deplorable detention practices. But it never occurred to me that something horrible was happening to everyone in Postville and the surrounding area.
Nearly one year later, the lingering effects of the raid make depressingly clear how misleading the "immigrants take from our communities" narrative really is. Postville Mayor Robert Penrod, who recently stepped down, told a reporter from Mother Jones, "Before, it was all hustle bustle, and you'd see people walking up and down the streets and driving and listening to music. Then all of a sudden, boom! I mean nobody was walking the streets." Formerly thriving restaurants were boarded up within months. Landlords began complaining of too many empty units. Even the big-box stores, which often seem like the only businesses that can survive in economically depressed rural counties, took a hit.
After watching what happened in Postville, folks in Milan worried they would face a similar fate after an immigration raid. "I hate to think what we'd do without them," Jerry Hollon, a local prosecutor, told The Kansas City Star.
A Homeland Security official recently told The Washington Post that Secretary Janet Napolitano was delaying a number of ICE raids until such raids could be directed toward businesses and executives rather than workers. Still, broader policy changes are a long way off. President Barack Obama promised the Congressional Hispanic Caucus he would make a public statement in support of legalizing many of America's 12 million undocumented workers, but such a statement (or, heaven forbid, accompanying legislation) hasn't come.
That's disappointing but not surprising. In a time of economic crisis and job loss, the anti-immigrant narrative of "those outsiders are taking our jobs" has all the more resonance. Vice President Joe Biden conceded as much. "It's difficult to tell a constituency while unemployment is rising, they're losing their jobs and their homes, that what we should do is in fact legalize and stop all deportation," he said at a late March press conference in Costa Rica.
It's easy to acknowledge in big, sweeping terms that our economy depends on immigrant labor. But we rarely hear the stories of small towns in places like Iowa and Missouri suffering in the absence of immigrants. These are stories of immigrants not taking but giving life to their adopted communities, stories of how deporting workers actually weakens local economies.
As we push Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform, we must think of this issue holistically. When it comes to immigration, everyone who lives in America -- immigrant or not -- has something both to gain and to lose, to give and to take.