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Iowa Hispanics Could Soon Develop Political Clout - 2004-01-18


As voters prepare to caucus in the midwestern state of Iowa, pundits and analysts are questioning whether the results in this atypical state will mean much, as the national election season unfolds. Iowa is a mostly white state, characterized by an agricultural economy with some light industry. But there is a quickly growing Hispanic population that could soon develop political clout in the state.

As recently as the 1980s there were hardly any Hispanics in Iowa and you were more likely to hear someone speaking German than Spanish on the street. The descendants of German and Dutch pioneers remain dominant here. But no community is growing faster than that of the Hispanics, which has more than doubled in the past 10 years, mostly as the result of immigration from Mexico.

Mexican restaurants and stores line the streets in an area near the state capitol building in Des Moines. Here, recent immigrants from south of the border can fight the cold air with a steaming plate of enchiladas, and then shop for some of their favorite Mexican products at nearby tiendas, variety stores stocked with both local and imported products.

The 2000 U.S. Census registered 82,473 Hispanics in Iowa, but the number today is probably well over 100,000. Only a small percentage of these residents are citizens who can participate in the caucuses or vote in the November election, but there is intense interest in the process among Hispanics here.

One radio station, KBGG, using the name La Ley, or the law, operates mostly in Spanish, offering not only music, but complete coverage of political events and caucus candidates.

Station owner Emilio Duran says Howard Dean has captured the attention of many Hispanics here through his radio advertising. He says other candidates and political figures have also come to the station to present their views.

Mr. Duran says most Hispanics here observe the process with interest, but cannot participate directly because they are not citizens. He says there are an estimated 30,000 people of Mexican descent living in Des Moines, but that only 25 percent of them are citizens. Many followed the same path he did to becoming residents and citizens. Mr. Duran came to Iowa 14 years ago to work on a farm, and later went into business. Most Mexican immigrants to this state come to work in slaughterhouses and food-processing plants.

Many female immigrants, like Maria Gonzalez, find work as hotel maids. She says she has become a citizen and wants to participate in her local caucus. She says immigration, job security and labor protection are important issues for her. She realizes, however, that the more immigrants there are, the less leverage people like her have in demanding higher wages and better work conditions. Employers can ignore many demands from workers because of the availability of so many other workers, many of whom come from Mexico willing to take any job, no matter how low the pay.

As for President Bush and his recently announced immigration proposal, Ms. Gonzalez says she is interested in it, but she does not fully understand it.

Emilio Duran says President Bush could capture some Hispanic votes with his proposal, but that many people remain skeptical. He says Iowa Hispanics are intrigued by the proposal, but they are not sure if it is genuine, or a ploy to draw their votes.

Political activists here say there are around 20,000 people with Spanish surnames registered to vote here in Iowa. This is a small percentage of the 1.8 million registered voters statewide, but analysts say Hispanics could be an important factor in some precincts where their communities are strong.

What is clear, however, is that the Hispanic population is growing, more and more are becoming citizens and their impact on future elections here will be significant.

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