Iowa has become an unlikely flash point in the debate over immigration. Although the state is more than 500 miles from the nearest border, new census data shows that the number of Hispanics living there has jumped by 26% since 2000. The state's Asian communities are also growing rapidly. Given that Iowa's overall population has grown only 1% since 2000, these foreign-born workers are vital to the health of the economy.
Still, not everyone is welcoming them. In June, Iowa representative Steve King, a Republican who used to own an earth-moving company, proposed federal legislation that would levy a fine on employers who hire undocumented workers. King also wants to build an online database to track immigrant workers. "We just simply can't be the relief valve for all the poverty in the world," he said in a TV interview.
While King tries to rally support for his bill, business leaders are backing the countervailing efforts of Gov. Tom Vilsack. With a Labor Department grant, Vilsack--a Democrat said to have national aspirations--has set up seven centers around the state that teach immigrants English and computer skills and help them find jobs. Services are free to any of Iowa's newcomers, even if they entered the U.S. illegally. "When it comes to finding jobs," says Barbara Bobb, who runs the program, "we do ask them if they are documented to work." In the past year and a half, the centers have placed 7,000 workers.