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Immigrants in Iowa Eye US Election Race Anxiously

It took Carlos Barco more than a decade to save enough money to start his popular Salvadoran restaurant in a prime location in Perry, Iowa.

Business is good, but he’s worried he could lose it all if a U.S. presidential candidate committed to deporting illegal immigrants wins the election next year.

“I would think it would actually affect me also,” he says in Spanish as his daughter translates. “Since I only have a work permit, so I think they will affect the whole community that has just a work permit, that we could all get deported.”

Barco left El Salvador in 1992, and came to the United States to make a better life for his family. He obtained a work permit that helped him get a job at the nearby Tyson food plant outside Perry.

Magnet for immigrants

The plant has been a magnet for immigrants seeking work in the United States, and has helped transform this small Iowa town of about 7,500 people.

It is easy to see the changing demographics in Perry’s downtown business district, which is dotted with Mexican and Central American restaurants, bakeries, and merchandise stores.

“Probably about forty percent Hispanic,” says local business owner Steve Parnell, a member of the group Hispanics United for Perry. “There’s a small percentage of Sudanese and other immigrants, Asians.”

Parnell owns a music store across the street from Barco’s restaurant, and right next door to a Mexican restaurant. As he plays one of the dozens of guitars on display in his showroom, he explains his stance on the issues facing Iowa voters this year.

Parnell considers himself a conservative, undecided voter -- the kind of voter Republican candidates need to win over to succeed in the Iowa caucuses next year, and ultimately, the race for president.

Right now, Parnell says, he is leaning toward supporting Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson because of what he is hearing from other candidates such as Donald Trump, who wants to deport as many as 11 million illegal immigrants.

“If Mr. Trump were to get the nomination and run against the Democratic candidate,” says Parnell “he would have to come up with some more realistic plans, some more viable plans, in order to be elected.”

Presidential candidates

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, another Republican presidential candidate, agrees with Parnell, saying it simply isn't feasible to deport 11 million illegal immigrants.

"That’s 15,000 people a day, every day, for two years. There’s just not enough law enforcement to be able to do that,” he told reporters at the opening of his campaign headquarters near the Iowa state capitol, Des Moines. “All this sounds great when you are standing up on a stage pontificating. We have to be honest with people. You can’t just tell them what they want to hear.”

Christie also says the problem with illegal immigration cannot be resolved by closing the U.S. border with Mexico. “The 11 million folks, 40 percent of them came in by coming in on visas and overstaying their visas.”

Christie says concerns over illegal immigration are not isolated to those he is hearing from in the early voting state of Iowa, where according to the 2010 U.S. Census, just over 5 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino. “It’s a big issue to people all across the country. Republican primary voters are very concerned.”

“I would like all the candidates to address this issue in a stable and realistic way” says Swallow Yan, president of an advocacy group called U.S. Education Without Borders. “There is a long-term accumulation of issues and you need to have a long-term plan.”

Yan attended Christie’s campaign event to hear more about his views on immigration. “I consider immigration a big issue and I want all of the candidates to address this issue fairly and in the long term. I don’t think the deportation of many people is realistic,” he said.

'Still learning'

Yan came to Iowa 24 years ago and is now a U.S. citizen. He actively participates in Iowa’s complicated caucus process, as well as general elections in the state.

“I’m still learning,” he explains. “I try to know more about candidates so I have not made a decision yet.”

But restaurant owner Carlos Barco will have no say in a decision that could change his life. He is not a U.S. citizen, and can’t vote in the Iowa caucuses, or the general election next November. His wife and one of his daughters also remain in the U.S. on work visas, while only his youngest daughter is a U.S. citizen.

If he were deported, he says, “I would lose everything because I haven’t been to my country in 15 years, I don’t know anyone there. I don’t have many things that I have here in the United States.”

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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