scorecardresearch Skip to main content
divided nation

Amid ouster cries, immigrants aid economic rebound in Iowa

John Deere tractors, long a symbol of the Waterloo, Iowa, economy, were transported by rail across the Cedar River.Matthew Holst for the Boston Globe

WATERLOO, Iowa — Donald Trump arrived in this manufacturing city one day recently, traveling past the sites of sprawling factories that once laid off thousands of people, and strode onto the stage of the Electric Park Ballroom, where Buddy Holly once played.

This city may have seemed the perfect setting for Trump’s message, which has drawn legions of disaffected voters to his rallies, and he appealed to them as he often does, promising to get back millions of jobs lost to China and delivering broadsides against immigrants who he said are “killing people.”

Then things got ugly. As Trump departed, waving his “Make America Great Again” hat from his car, some of his supporters jeered at a group of protesting immigrants who stood just beyond a barricade. “Learn English or go back to Mexico,” one young man shouted.


Maria Gonzales, a 59-year-old cashier who lives in Waterloo, was stunned. She speaks English, is a citizen, and has lived in the United States for 40 years. “He is just talking and not even knowing what he is saying,” she said, her face filled with emotion.

The tense scene revealed the double-edged nature of the immigration issue, the way it can be used to appeal to voters, but also disconnected from a broader local view — a paradox that Trump could not have missed had he spent more time in this city of 68,000 people.

This is a place where the Trump’s rhetoric strikes a chord with disaffected voters seeking someone or something to blame for the deep slump that long beset this city, the lost jobs and broken promises and the median income that still runs far below state average. Party labels mean less to such voters than the hope for a candidate who speaks in an unvarnished way to their anxiety and anger.


But this is also a city where Trump’s rhetoric seems divorced from the reality on the ground: Waterloo has made a remarkable recovery in recent years, a transformation to which thousands of immigrant workers have made a major contribution. It’s a common story across the heartland, and across the nation.

Many employers here say they long for more, not fewer, immigrant workers, and certainly do not favor the mass deportations Trump espouses. Local politicians of all stripes said the city is a striking example of how an economy can be rebuilt with the help of a community drawn from around the world — “the most diverse place in Iowa,” as one business leader boasts.

Trump, as it turned out, had come to a city that is something of a laboratory for understanding both this disaffection from politics and the role that immigrants play in today’s economy. Waterloo exudes pride in its comeback story, but continues to be shaped by the memory of what happened a generation ago, during some of its darkest days.

Decline and opportunity

UAW local president Tom Ralston.Matthew Holst for the Boston Globe

Tom Ralston was only a toddler when it happened. John Deere, the farm equipment behemoth that has long dominated Waterloo, tanked along with the agricultural economy in the 1980s. Eventually, some 10,000 workers at its Waterloo plants were laid off. Around the same time, the Rath meat-packing plant, remembered for its Indian head logo, shut down, costing thousands more jobs. A company that manufactured munitions shuttered, leaving hundreds more out of work. Countless small businesses in the supply chain suffered or collapsed. Thousands of families were bereft, and many moved out. Home prices fell to one of the lowest levels nationwide. Trust in business and government plummeted. Even today, Waterloo’s median income is $38,902, compared to $52,229 statewide.


Such is the soil in which disaffection took root — and opportunities for newcomers emerged.

Nationally, voter anger is often traced to events in the 1960s and 1970s. Civil rights legislation prompted resentment among some white voters, especially in the South. The bitter ending of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation ushered in an era of cynicism about government. That was followed by an economic downturn in the 1980s, which was felt as harshly in Waterloo as anywhere in the country, epitomized by a series of layoffs known as Black Friday, although not all occurred on one day.

“The community has a strong remembrance,” Ralston said. “Everybody remembers it. I was born in ’84, but I remember it like I was there because the community has such a strong memory.”

Gradually, the city brightened. John Deere has invested $1 billion in Waterloo in the last decade and gradually increased the number of employees. But during the past year, dark memories returned. John Deere announced it was laying off 1,000 out of 6,000 employees in Waterloo due to a downturn in the farm economy. Only about 50 of the recently laid-off workers have been recalled.


Ralston grew up in Waterloo and, like many here, dreamed of the stability of a John Deere job. He rose to become the president of local United Auto Workers union that represents Deere workers, a job that demands he constantly worry about whether history might repeat itself.

The aftermath of the 1980s crises affects the city to this day. Property taxes had to be raised after the shutdowns, and they remain among the state’s highest. At the same time, voters were giving up on traditional party alignments. Registration in Black Hawk County, which includes Waterloo, has been shifting away from the Democrat and Republican parties, with independents holding a plurality, with 34,020 voters, compared to 30,126 Democrats and 21,211 Republicans. Nationally, the percentage of independents last year reached a high of 39 percent, compared to 32 percent Democrats and 23 percent Republicans.

All of this has helped fuel the rise of the GOP outsiders, including Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, as well as the support for Senator Bernie Sanders among Democrats.

“The disaffected people feel the power structure of both parties does things for their own personal benefit and special interests, and when it comes to their own life, things are getting worse,” said Doug Gross, a longtime Iowa Republican activist who is uncommitted.

Harsh words fly

During the Trump rally, such polarization was on vivid display; the candidate fomented division and played to it. After boasting about his poll numbers — which have since, to his consternation, edged down — Trump turned his sights on immigrants. Trump has said he wants to force 11 million illegal immigrants to return to their homelands, while stressing that a “beautiful door” will be open to legal entrants. He also wants to deport the 300,000 or so children who are born annually in the United States to illegal immigrants, disagreeing with the longstanding view that the Constitution automatically gives them birthright citizenship. Iowa had at least 149,000 foreign-born residents in 2013, including an estimated 40,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the American Immigration Council.

Trump mocked his rival Jeb Bush, who is married to a Mexican-born woman and who expressed sympathy for those who come here illegally. “He said, remember, ‘They come as an act of love,’ right?” Trump told the crowd of about 1,000. “In the meantime, they’re killing people.”

He also ridiculed the idea that the United States may admit thousands of Syrian refugees, many of whom have fled a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, suggesting that they might be part of a terrorist army that would be unleashed once they arrive in the United States.

“We know nothing about them,” Trump said, “They are not documented. This could be one of the great Trojan horses. This could make the Trojan horse look like peanuts.”


Many in the crowd devoured it. Trump supporters at the rally described themselves as either disaffected from the party to which they had long belonged or disillusioned with politics in general.

Many said their disaffection with politics began after Ronald Reagan left office. They said the subsequent presidents were, in effect, of one party, a permanent establishment that doesn’t represent them.

Paul Beyer, 72, spent 34 years as the ultimate Iowa political insider, serving on Republican committees, urging the state’s many unaligned voters to join the GOP. Then, three years ago, he became “fed up,” registering as an independent.

“Trump is saying what we have felt for many years but we don’t have guts enough to bring it out,” Beyer said. “The immigration thing is a big one,” he added, saying that a friend’s mother “was killed in a car wreck by illegal immigrants.”

Carolyn Berndt, the manager of the Des Moines chapter of the Izaak Walton League, the conservation and outdoor recreation group, said she had been a lifelong Democrat until she, too, became fed up with her party. She registered as a Republican and became an avid Trump supporter.

“I’m for the wall,” she said, referring to Trump’s plan to seal the Mexican border.

With Trump’s rise, she said, she is excited about an election for the first time since Reagan was president. It is a common sentiment among Trump supporters, that the light went out of politics after Reagan.

It may be forgotten that Reagan said he believed “in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” Reagan signed legislation in 1986 that allowed 2.7 million undocumented immigrants to apply for legal residency.

The irony is that Waterloo presents the kind of story that Reagan might have had in mind when he legalized millions of undocumented immigrants.

Newcomers’ impact

Jacky Rosic stood in his Bosnian restaurant “Galleria de Paco.” earlier this month.Matthew Holst for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Open the door to Galleria de Paco and a most unexpected sight greets the visitor. The restaurant is painted to resemble the Sistine Chapel, ceiling to floor, a rendition of the Italian masterpiece applied through the artistry of 2,000 cans of spray paint. Diners sit in high-backed chairs at broad tables. Holding court is Jacky Rosic, a Bosnian Muslim who lost more than half of his family in wars back home, fled to Germany, and eventually arrived here like so many others, to make a new life. He turned an abandoned downtown building into a Waterloo landmark, the Sistine replica painted by his son, Paco.

Twenty years ago, there were few Bosnians here. A local meat-packing company was searching for those who would do the plant’s difficult work. Bosnians who needed jobs that didn’t require English heard about the Waterloo plant. They told friends and family, and in a matter of years, the number of Bosnians living in the area climbed to 5,000, many of whom were employed in meat plants and shops, and then opened businesses of their own.

Eighteen years after his arrival here, Rosic is asked what he thinks of Trump’s “Make American Great Again” appearance in town. He said America already is great. “The United States is the best in the whole universe so far,” he said. “Nobody can even imagine how lucky they are to be here.”

To Rosic, who, like many Bosnians, was granted asylum during the sectarian wars by President Clinton, immigrants are the story of America, the engine of its growth, a fact that defines Waterloo.

“The city was empty before” the influx, he said. “Nothing was happening. Now, it is beautiful.”

Today, Waterloo is the most diverse major city in Iowa. African-Americans came here from the South in the early 20th century, finding work on railroads and in factories, and today make up 14 percent of the city’s population. Then, after waves of Waterloo residents fled during the 1980s shutdowns, refugees and other immigrants arrived and took their place.

In the early 1990s, an influx of some 3,500 Latinos, mostly from Mexico, found work in meat-packing plants and elsewhere. Then, starting around 1996 came the 5,000 Bosnians, followed by 1,200 from Myanmar, 300 Liberians, and others, according to Mark Grey, director of the New Iowans Center at the University of Northern Iowa, which works with refugees. About 12 percent of the population in Waterloo and nearby areas is nonnative, he said.

“We have folks like Trump come through talk about how illegal immigration ruined our community,” Grey said. “Really? Almost the entire recent influx of refugees to Waterloo are legal. Thank God they are here. They pay taxes. We had a school almost shut down until the Burmese came. They are renting our stores, there’s a major turnaround in the housing market. The town has been in recovery since the 1980s, and it has really accelerated with the arrival of these folks.”

Across the city, businesses say they depend on immigrants in a labor market that has a 4 percent unemployment rate.

Steve Dust, president of the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber, the area’s leading business group, said Trump’s plan to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and their US-born children is “unrealistic,” and he said the region particularly wants educated emigres who came here on student visas to be allowed to remain.

“The Midwest is de-populating, and Iowa’s growth has come primarily from immigration,” Dust said. “Immigration is good for Iowa.” As for Waterloo’s greater-than-average diversity, “We celebrate that.”

The city’s comeback has been built on businesses diversifying into fields such as health care and high-tech. Even companies that don’t rely on immigrant labor say they have a shortage of workers.

Jim Walsh, president of an 850-employee company called VGM, a home-grown firm that distributes health care equipment, lamented that he can’t draw enough high-skilled workers to Waterloo. Walsh, who calls himself a libertarian Republican, said he has at least 100 upper-level employees in satellite offices across the country because “We can’t get people to move here.”

Aside from immigration, Trump highlighted his promise to return millions of jobs from China. But the local company with one of the biggest ties to China — John Deere — distanced itself from Trump’s stance. While there are Deere facilities in China, they are designed to supply the local market, the company said.

“That scenario does not work for John Deere. We do not have jobs in China that we would bring to Waterloo, Iowa,” spokesman Ken Golden said.

Political alienation

Mayor Buck Clark.Matthew Holst for The Boston Globe

Mayor Buck Clark, 67, a Democrat who has decided not to seek reelection, loves to tell the story of Waterloo’s comeback, and the role that immigrants have played in it. But he knows that, for many in Waterloo, immigration is a subplot in the broader story of voter disaffection. This year’s mayoral election is likely to draw just 20 percent of voters, about the percentage that participated in the hotly contested 2012 Republican presidential caucuses.

“It is just awful,” Clark said of the city voter rate. “It is reflective of this whole movement that people don’t trust or like their politicians at any level.”

The presidential race is in some ways mirrored by this fall’s campaign for mayor. Leah Morrison, who describes herself as conservative, has run a Trump-like campaign that touts her outsider credentials and her lack of political experience — but parts company with him on immigration. Morrison, who runs an accounting firm, said, “Most employers in our city are desperate to hire anyone.”

Rejecting the message

Dick Cole has seen the story of Waterloo through his camera lens over the decades. At 17, in July 1958, he was in the kitchen of the Electric Park Ballroom when he took an iconic photo of Buddy Holly tuning his guitar. Cole later met his future wife under the ballroom’s dome. His photography business took off as Waterloo boomed, and it bottomed when the thousands of John Deere employees lost jobs. He counted Waterloo’s troubles this way: fewer photos of graduations, weddings, smiling families. He watched Waterloo, and the city’s businesses, rebound with the influx immigrants, for whom he has high praise.

Then, on Oct. 7, Trump emerged from the same kitchen where Holly had strummed his guitar, and he took the stage to cheers. Cole, now 74, was back in the ballroom. Cole is an undecided Republican when it comes to politics, but always the observer, narrowing and widening the lens.

“We got a bunch of rednecks here, and I’m sure that they are in love with Trump; he says what we all want to hear, we are going to build a fence and we’re going to make more business, we’re going to be better,” Cole said. “The working class folk here, in a lot of cases, they want to hear that. I like what he says, but I don’t believe — there’s no way to export 10 million people.”

What does he think the people of Waterloo believe? He responds by recounting Waterloo’s tumultuous ride over the decades, and its constant courting by presidential candidates.

“I think we have all been worked over so bad,” Cole concluded, “we don’t know what’s the truth.”

Michael Kranish can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish.