Inside the tiny Iowa community with an immigration politics paradox

Allamakee County, Iowa, has picked the president in the last six elections.

ALLAMAKEE COUNTY, IOWA -- In one of the whitest corners of one of the whitest states in the country, a community of immigrants from six continents is challenging popular assumptions about politics, economics and cultural assimilation.

The town of Postville, population 2,100, relies on migrants from more than a dozen countries for the backbreaking, low-wage work processing kosher beef and chicken that's the economic lifeblood of the area.

"It's not a nice place to work, but it's a job," said Postville's Republican Mayor Leigh Rekow of Agri Star Meat and Poultry, the county's largest employer.

"We have our refugee population, our Somali population. We have students from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras," said Postville native and educator Joy Minikwu.

The meatpacking plant's insatiable demand for labor keeps immigration front and center across Allamakee County. In Postville alone, storefronts reflect a global marketplace, from dried chili peppers at El Pariente Mexican market to glatt kosher products at the Jewish deli and staples for traditional Somali cooking at Said Ibrahim's sundries shop.

The town slogan, flying on banners along main street, is "Hometown to the World."

"There's room for everybody," said Mayor Rekow, "but they have to go through the legal (channels). I mean, I have grandchildren that are married to Latinos. So it's OK.."

Twelve years ago, illegal immigration nearly wiped Postville off the map. Federal agents raided the town's meatpacking plant on May 12, 2008, arresting nearly 400 people in what is still the biggest single-site U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in U.S. history.

"There were kids that were left behind. Kids that never saw their mom or dad again. Kids ... living with complete strangers because they didn't know, you know, where mom or dad were even at," said local fourth grade teacher and Postville native Morgan Taake, who was in seventh grade at the time of the raid. "It destroyed our town."

The roundup forced the plant into bankruptcy and sent other local businesses that depended on the workers as customers into a financial spiral. It also inspired a political gut-check, residents say, with many community leaders questioning the government's hard-line policies.

"Immigration is the most broken problem in the United States," said Aaron Goldsmith, a former Postville City Council member and small business owner who has backed Democratic and Republican candidates for president. "I personally don't understand why we don't simplify it. We need workers."

But not everyone has been won over by Postville's resiliency with the demographic change.

"I'm for the wall 100%," said one resident, who asked not to be identified, when asked about immigration inside Club 51, the town's only bar. "You can't just let everybody come in."

"I like the Mexicans. Get rid of the Somalis and the Jews," interjected another patron seated at the bar. Both said they were supporters of President Donald Trump.

Allamakee County voted for Trump by 24 points in 2016 after backing Democratic President Barack Obama in the two previous elections. It's one of 31 Iowa counties that flipped from Democratic control four years ago and which the party is targeting closely in 2020.

"If there is a mass deportation of immigrants, our farming economy would collapse because now we are dependent on those immigrant workers to work on our farms," said local Democratic party chairwoman Lori Egan of the stakes this election.

Agri Star officials say near-record low unemployment and tightening U.S. immigration restrictions have made the plant's 500 jobs harder to fill. High turnover has sent company recruiters scrambling to Puerto Rico in search of workers in recent months.

The worker crunch has also hit local small businesses, many owned by Republicans who support Trump, but disagree with his policies on immigration.

"I don't think we are 'full,'" said Mayor Rekow of the Trump's oft-repeated declaration that the country cannot take any more immigrants.

Goldsmith, who owns a custom medical bed company in town, calls the worker shortage "very painful."

Waukon's Mayor Pat Stone, who owns a small construction company in the county, concedes finding employees is a "huge problem" these days.

"Job openings are everywhere," he said. "We'll hire pretty much anyone, qualified or not."

Egan says Democrats believe the issue of immigration could be one of the keys to winning the county back.

"I'm hopeful," she said. "Unemployment is low, but wages are stuck here in Iowa. The trade war has hurt farmers and the farming community."

Minkwu, who teaches English as a second language at the town's high school, says the issue of immigration is deeply personal for this quiet, conservative community.

"Immigration is such a huge, huge issue within this race," she said of the 2020 campaign. "So many of our students and our families are within our immigration process and all of that could change overnight for them. Our community and our school rely so much on our immigrants."

Undecided and unaffiliated voters in Allamakee -- roughly a third of the county's registered voters -- are top targets of both political parties.

"I am not firm on Donald Trump. Do I like what Trump is saying? I don't like what he's saying; I like some of the things he's doing," said Goldsmith, a self-described moderate who voted for Trump in 2016 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. "I don't think people went crazy for Trump but they are crazy to be heard."

Retired 911 dispatcher and jailer Revelyn Lonning, a lifelong Republican in Waukon, said residents in her corner of Iowa want a candidate who shows he or she understands them.

"When it came down to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I didn't like either one of them, and like a lot of people, you know, you just go with the one -- you gotta make a choice," Lonning said in an interview at her kitchen table.

"I don't regret my choice not to vote for Hillary," she said.

But Lonning said that her conscience has her keeping an open mind for 2020 -- Monday night might be the first time in her 78 years that she goes to caucus with Democrats.

"I do have two Democrat candidates who I could caucus for: Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang," she said. "Or, I may just stay home and watch the results come in."