MARCUS, Iowa | Marie and Neal Bork have many trees on the Country Pines Tree Farm in rural Marcus that Siouxlanders can cut and buy to decorate for Christmas.
But the experience the Borks offer to the extended families scouring tree options is a broader, festive one, with cider drinks, candy canes, Santa items for sale and music in a barn. Marie Bork said people greet her with hugs and some will catch up for the gap over the 12 months since they last came to Country Pines.
"We say that we sell memories, that is the key to everything.... Everybody who comes is happy. Nobody is grumpy. Well, if they are grumpy, we make them not grumpy," Bork said.
Bork said the trend of people buying Christmas trees from Country Pines Tree Farm on the first weekend after Thanksgiving has been strong for many years.
"People get through Thanksgiving, and now it is time for Christmas," Bork said of the buying mentality.
"We have families, maybe two or three generations, coming to the tree farm. Some people wander around for an hour, just enjoying being outside and being together."
Holiday decorators can cut the fragrant tree of their choice at the farm. Most trees grow from seven to 15 years before being harvested. Pine grows faster than spruce or fir, and the slower-growing trees command a higher price.
Continuing her 20-year tradition of shopping at Country Pines, Jean Walker, of Cherokee, Iowa, went with 15 family members and four friends to buy trees Friday. Walker said she has always preferred real to artificial trees, for the scent of the pine, plus it delivers a sense of nostalgia.
Walker said it is pleasing to have her grandchildren now coming to pick trees, adding onto the memories of when her own children drove to the farm while hearing Christmas music in the car.
"We come, we cut down our tree and we enjoy it...It is an old-time Christmas (feel)," Walker said.
There aren't a huge number of tree farms in Iowa. The other main one in Northwest Iowa is 40 miles west of the Borks', in rural Hawarden, Iowa, T&S Christmas Tree Farm.
The Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association dates to 1963, and about 100 association members are selling trees on plots that typically range from three to eight acres.
The Borks have owned the tree farm since 1990. They planted the first seedlings that year, and enough had reached maturity to begin selling by 1996. This year, the selling season opened Wednesday, then the Borks enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.
Marie Bork said her expectations for a busy three-day weekend were quickly realized, describing Friday morning being full with 15 to 25 vehicles for much of the time.
"It was absolutely wild and crazy," Bork said.
There are 4,000 trees at the Country Pines farm in various stages of growth, from seedlings to the seven-footers people want. Bork said there was concern with July drought conditions, but "we've had nice rains this fall," so the crop is fine for sales.
"There were quite a few good options. I always go for the biggest and the tallest, that just me," Walker said, punctuating her assessment with a laugh.
SOUTH SIOUX CITY | The Dakota County Sheriff's Office has asked federal officials for permission to deputize jailers to enforce U.S. immigration laws.
The sheriff's office is the first agency in Nebraska and one of only 60 nationwide to apply for a federal program known as 287(g). The program authorizes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies to allow officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions after the officers complete specialized training.
Dakota County Sheriff Chris Kleinberg downplays the impact of the program, saying it will help his department more efficiently process undocumented workers who have been arrested and incarcerated in the county jail.
But critics of the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration worry the county's participation in the program will "provoke fear, distrust and strife" within minority groups in the community.
Kleinberg bristled at that notion, saying "this has nothing whatsoever to do with Donald Trump" or the Trump administration's agenda.
"This is basic stuff in the jail, how can you go wrong by training your staff more? I don't see anything," Kleinberg said, adding the program is more than a decade old and has been around before Trump took office in January.
The sheriff said he is waiting to hear back on the department's application for the program, which falls under section 287(g) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.
The program allows correction officers to act as ICE agents to decide what actions need to be taken for both illegal immigrants and legal refugees, those with work visas and those with a green card when they are arrested.
Opponents argue the program erodes trust between law enforcement and immigrants and can lead to racial profiling. Kleinberg said the latter likely wouldn't happen since the department's trained officers would deal with a person's immigration status only after they have been arrested and jailed on other charges.
South Sioux City immigration lawyer Heidi Oligmueller said she is concerned with the amount of training the local jailers would receive in the 287(g) program. To win approval, officers must undergo a four-week basic training program and would have to take a one-week refresher training program every two years with certified instructors.
Oligmueller said officers would face difficult decisions including immigration removal proceedings, deportation based on certain crimes, whether someone is eligible for bond or if a case should be turned over to an immigration court.
"Those kinds of analyses are really complicated," Oligmueller said. "My concern is that there's so much of a case-by-case analysis, especially when criminal activity comes into play, that 30 days of training seems to be completely inadequate as far as those officers being able to make the appropriate decisions with regard to immigration law ... and circumventing a trained immigration official. That is problematic in my opinion."
Kleinberg believes the two to three officers who would get the training could handle the job. He also stated the issue has been blown out of proportion.
"There is so much misinformation out there when it is actually really simple. Google it, for Pete's sake. It says right on there what it is," Kleinberg said. "A lot of the local groups want to turn it into a 'You are going to get a paddy wagon and start kicking doors in.'
"Just in the last couple months, we have had to send a Canadian back through ICE and a German man who was here on a work visa. So it is not geared toward any race or origin or anything like that," Kleinberg continued. "This is just to help us in our jail understand immigration law."
Currently, ICE has 287(g) agreements with 60 law enforcement agencies in 18 states. The border state of Texas accounts for about 20 of those. Iowa and South Dakota do not currently have any agreements with the federal agency.
ICE has trained and certified more than 1,822 state and local officers to enforce immigration law.
The local Latino advocacy organization Unity in Action has started an online petition for the sheriff to withdraw his application to the program. The petition had received more than 115 signatures as of Friday evening.
In a statement, Unity in Action Executive Director Ismael Valadez said "287(g) entitles the sheriff’s office to certain actions that can provoke fear, distrust and strife within our small community. It is the actions that come with the certification that can take this county down a disturbing path. Our community members should live in a community that encourages them and helps them achieve their potential -- not a community that subjects them to fear and distrust."
Kleinberg said he has met with members of Unity in Action and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, who also expressed their concerns about the program with him.
"They are trying to force me to (not contract with ICE), but I am going to do it. There is really no changing my mind," Kleinberg said. "I want to protect my county, also my employees, my jail, and my office. By this training, it will help me to do that better."
Once a memorandum of agreement that lays out the scope and limitations of the contract is established, Kleinberg said he would be willing to meet with the concerned citizens and organizations again.
"I'm happy to sit and do a public meeting and talk about this MOA once we agree to it," he said.
Kleinberg said two or three officers would be selected to undergo training. He mentioned he has had people reach out to him offering to fund the training since the "sheriff's budget can't pay for any of it," he said.
Oligmueller said she will "take the sheriff at his word" when he says the program won't instill distrust and fear between minorities and law enforcement, as Unity in Action has contended.
"The decision to act on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security is only supposed to be made once people are in the four walls of the jail," Oligmueller said. "It's not supposed to spread out into patrolling or other interaction with everyday people.
"I feel like just the application for the 287(g) itself -- and the uncertainties that go along with it -- kind of sends the wrong message to the immigrant community," she said. "I think many of these people come from countries where there is already a distrust of government and law enforcement because of corruption or whatever it is. Immigration advocates work really hard to tell (immigrants) that police are their friends and you need them when you are a victim or have an emergency. So I worry this just sends the wrong message, but only time will tell, I guess."
Investigators heard several reports of sexually suggestive comments by Iowa Republican caucus staff members and senators, but found no “provable” incidents of sexual harassment in the state Senate, a review released Friday shows.
The three-page report features staff members’ recollections of at least seven incidents of sexually suggestive or offensive comments, but no allegations of physical harassment. The report reveals two incidents in which what appears to be senators made offensive comments, but their names are censored.
The report “shows the workplace culture needs to improve,” according to Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, who originally had refused to release it.
The internal investigation followed former staff member Kirsten Anderson’s successful sexual harassment lawsuit this summer that resulted in a $1.75 million settlement to be paid by taxpayers.
Anderson was the Republican caucus communications director between 2008 and 2013 when she was fired hours after lodging a sexual harassment complaint. Leaders cited poor work performance as the reason for her dismissal.
During Anderson’s trial, GOP Senate staff members testified to ongoing sexual harassment, which led to the internal inquiry of allegations from December 2012 to now. Current members of the staffs of the Republican Senate caucus and the Secretary of the Senate were interviewed between July 25 and Aug. 7.
The leaders, who have brought in former ambassador and Senate President Mary Kramer to help them address what Anderson described at trial as a “toxic” environment, said workplace culture at the Senate “can improve, and with a lot of hard work, it will improve.”
But Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, found the report “deeply troubling” because investigators heard about senators making sexually suggestive comments as recently as the 2017 legislative session — after Dix and other GOP leaders said they had zero tolerance for such behavior.
“The report will increase the disgust that Iowans feel about the harassment, discrimination, and retaliation against Kirsten Anderson and other legislative staff,” Petersen said in a statement. “The report paints a picture of an environment in the Iowa Senate that will lead to more lawsuits against Republicans senators and staff unless dramatic changes are made.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Kim Reynolds, who earlier called for the report to be released, said Friday that the governor had no comment.
In releasing the report Friday, Whitver and Dix said they were trying to balance two competing concerns: openness and protecting staff.
“The first concern is to be open with Iowans about the workplace issues in the Iowa Senate,” they said in a statement.
Names were redacted from the report because “to improve the workplace culture, employees need to know they can share their concerns without those issues being shared publicly.”
“Publicizing those individuals could have a chilling effect on the willingness of employees to make reports of future incidents,” they added.
Whitver and Dix also shared a letter from the Des Moines law firm of Ahlers Cooney advising them to black out the names of employees because participation in the investigation related to job conduct and performance would be confidential information under Iowa law.
The attorneys also advised that senators’ names should be redacted because under Iowa law, “personal information in personnel records of government bodies relating to identified or identifiable individuals who are officials, officers or employees of government bodies” is protected.
In their investigation, Secretary of the Senate Charlie Smithson and Whitver’s senior aide Mary Earnhardt looked at incidents and comments in and by the Senate caucus staff and office environment, the Senate floor environment and the Secretary of the Senate staff.
Among the findings:
-- An staff member said an person made a sexually suggestive comment during the 2013 legislative session.
-- Another provided copies of handwritten documentation of offensive comments within the GOP staff office that occurred after December 2012.
-- A person “specifically noted” a sexually explicit story told by a fellow staff member. The staff member asked that the story be stopped.
The report notes that documentation of the events was provided, but it was not included in the materials released.
-- A member of the Secretary of the Senate staff indicated a person “overheard what could possibly be interpreted as harassment,” but declined to give specifics.
-- Many caucus staff members indicated there is an environment on the Senate floor of senators “making sexually suggestive comments or about sexual preferences.”
-- One recalled one occasion of a senator making a sexually suggestive comment in 2017.
-- Another detailed a story about a senator making sexually suggestive comments regarding proposed legislation on dense breast tissue.
-- There were other reports involving former senators.
Some staff members told investigators they feared retaliation, say that is why they did not feel comfortable reporting harassment. Other staffers, however, said they were comfortable reporting potential harassment.
The investigators said that, in conclusion, “it does not appear that any provable incidents of sexual harassment as defined in Section 17 of the Personnel Guidelines have occurred.”
Democratic leader Petersen said the report by a political appointee and a Republican staffer confirms her belief that an independent, outside investigation is needed.
“We called on all senators to work together to fix this problem,” she said. “Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have ignored the calls for action by refusing to fire any of their staff or to make any changes in their leadership.”
The report can be found at https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/WMD/SenateInternalReview.pdf