‘These are not criminals’: Latino groups urge nuance as Iowa GOP focuses on border security

By: - October 13, 2021 7:25 pm

Republican leaders in Iowa have focused extensively on border security in recent days. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa Latinx groups called for state leaders to be more welcoming toward refugees in the wake of a Republican emphasis on border security, which they said was politically motivated.

“Let’s get over this fear-mongering,” said League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa Political Director Joe Henry. “They’re doing the work, so let’s welcome more of them. We certainly need more workers.”

In the past week, Gov. Kim Reynolds and every Republican in Iowa’s Congressional delegation has spoken out about U.S.-Mexico border security. They’ve focused on rising numbers of border encounters during President Joe Biden’s tenure, and increased drug seizures along the border and in Iowa. In response, Republicans have called for increased border patrols, a physical barrier and a return to some of former President Donald Trump’s more restrictive policies.

But Latino leaders in Iowa say the issue of border security tells only part of the story of immigration, and focusing just on crime can create negative connotations for all immigrants. Des Moines immigration lawyer Sonia Parras said coverage of the issue is often “dehumanizing.”

“We’re talking about ‘crisis, crisis, crisis,’ but you don’t hear about people … and their stories,” Parras said. “What is their push factor? And why are they coming?”

Republicans unite in calling for increased security at the border

Reynolds traveled last week to Texas, where she and other Republican governors called for increased border security and deportations. She signed on to a 10-point policy proposal that would send a “clear message that it’s not worth it to try to come to the border and to cross over into the United States.”

Reynolds objected to the idea that her trip was a politically motivated, citing increased numbers of illegal immigrants and drug seizures at the border in Iowa. She said the purity and quantity of substances coming to Iowa were “horrific.”

“If you think this is a political stunt, then people better wake up,” she said during a news conference Oct. 6. “Because this is what’s coming across our borders, this is what’s coming into our state.”

Henry, of LULAC, acknowledged that some illegal drugs come across the border, though he said the problem is not new and the number of illegal smugglers is small compared to the number of people seeking asylum.

“We would argue that drugs coming into the state can be stopped through different means other than holding refugees hostage at the border,” he said.

In addition to Reynolds’ trip, Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley signed on to a proposal that would prevent people with sexual assault convictions from immigrating to the U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson advocated for the federal government to reinstate a “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum-seekers.

Over the weekend, half of Iowa’s Republican delegation spoke at a Des Moines rally with Trump, where he alleged that other countries were purposefully sending criminals into the country. From the very first speech of Trump’s political career, he accused Mexico of sending drugs and rapists to the U.S.

“These are refugees,” Henry said Wednesday. “These are not criminals.”

While Trump spoke in Iowa, Ernst and Rep. Randy Feenstra traveled to Colombia and Panama to discuss national security issues with leaders there. 

“Between the ongoing crisis at our southern border, which has exacerbated the drug trafficking challenges Iowa faces; the threat posed by a growing Chinese influence in the region; and, the economic partnership and cooperation, particularly regarding supply chain disruptions, this was a critical mission at this time,” Ernst said in a Wednesday statement.

Latinx groups: Iowa is not a border state

Patricia Ritchie, vice chair of the Latinx Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party, argued that Iowa does not have a direct relationship to illegal immigration at the southern border, which is over 1,000 miles away.

“We are not a border state,” Ritchie said, calling on state leaders to focus on domestic issues instead.

Henry, Ritchie and Parras all emphasized that immigrants are essential to Iowa’s workforce. Parras, the immigration lawyer, said she hears frequently from employers that want to help their employees gain legal citizenship.

The goal, she said, is to ensure workers are not exploited, but rather put in positions where they can “actually do a good day of work and get paid a good amount of money and help build and move forward with our economy.”

Parras said the biggest issue facing her clients is often a broken and delayed legal immigration system. She said that a family reunification case took four to five months in past years, but under President Donald Trump, the process slowed to 14 to 17 months per case.

“We’ve seen a greater backlog and a harder time processing cases that before were flowing,” Parras said, though she noted that cases have picked up slightly in the past few months.

Parras argued that fixing the immigration system by making it easier for workers to stay and for families to reunite would improve border security, as the U.S. could focus more resources on actual, criminal threats at the border. She encouraged people to seek out individual stories of immigrants, rather than focus on the numbers of people arriving at the border.

Henry, Ritchie and Parras noted that Reynolds has the power to accept more refugees from the southern border into Iowa. Henry called it “hypocritical” that Iowa would take in nearly 700 Afghan refugees, but that the governor denied federal requests to house child migrants in April.

“These people are the same,” Henry said. “These are the same people. They’re fleeing violence.”

Reynolds said last week that the U.S. is very welcoming to immigrants, but that we’re also “a country of laws” and immigrants must follow the proper process.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.