STORM LAKE | Sabrina Martinez starts canvassing for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign next weekend.
The 25-year-old aspiring medical student will target the Hispanic neighborhoods in this big town/little city where she’s lived for the past four years because she’s bilingual and, she says, because it should be the most effective use of her time.
“The DREAM Act is a huge deal,” Martinez said. “When you have time to explain it to people, they are really interested.”
The DREAM Act is a federal proposal that provides a way for some illegal immigrant to become full citizens if they meet certain criteria. It’s been introduced in Congress and revised several times since 2001 but has never passed.
That a bill such as the DREAM Act has supporters in both parties speaks to the emerging power of the immigrant population in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and farming towns such as Storm Lake, whose dining scene boasts mom-and-pop Mexican bakeries and Laotian restaurants alongside the more familiar national chains.
“We have 30 different restaurants downtown; that’s remarkable for a community this size. There are 26 different languages the people at the hospital need to be able to speak,” said Gary Lalone, executive director of Storm Lake United, which serves as the community’s chamber of commerce. “That’s a good thing.”
Where Lalone sees business opportunity, Martinez sees a political one.
“I don’t see a lot of effort going in these neighborhoods yet,” said Martinez, who holds down a full-time sales job at Storm Lake’s King’s Pointe Resort and a part-time job at the Buena Vista Regional Medical Center. She also teaches GED classes on the side.
“There are people here who can vote, but they are not registered because they don’t know they can,” she said. “Those are the people that I want to talk to.”
Storm Lake is one of a handful of Iowa towns, including Denison in the west and Postville in the northeast, where the promise of steady work at meatpacking plants pulled large numbers of immigrant workers into the community beginning in the early 1980s.
Mark Grey, an anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa, has studied immigration patterns in Iowa, with a concentration on Storm Lake, for more than two decades.
“Politically, the first group (of immigrants) probably couldn’t vote,” Grey said. “They were likely legal residents, but you have to be a citizen to vote.”
That generation, some of whom could be eligible for naturalization, now has kids who were born in the United States and are now coming of voting age.
In a report released last week, the American Immigration Council estimated there are 8 million immigrants who came to the United States between 1985 and 2010 who could be naturalized. According to data the group compiled using U.S. Department of Homeland Security information, as many as 1,054 people in Buena Vista County — where Storm Lake is located — could be naturalized but haven’t gone through the process.
The county also has been reliably Republican.
John McCain won in Buena Vista County in 2008 when most of the rest of the state went for Obama. Conservative firebrand U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, grew up and keeps a district office here and routinely pulls double the votes his opponents do in the county.
King’s electoral success here hasn’t come without criticism. Art Cullen, editorial page editor of the Storm Lake Times, is a self-described “Catholic Democrat” and an ardent King critic. With his tangled mess of gray hair and bushy mustache, Cullen resembles a modern-day Mark Twain, if Twain had been taller than 6 feet, rail thin and smoked Marlboro Reds. His brother, John, publishes the Times, one of two hometown papers that circulate in Storm Lake.
“We cudgel Steve King because he’s a moron,” Cullen said. “No, no he’s not. He’s cynical, very bright, and he’s a complete opportunist. Most of all he’s cynical.”
Contacted for a response, King, who is being challenged by Democrat Christie Vilsack for the 4th Congressional District seat, replied through a spokesman with this statement: “I don’t respond to Art Cullen and neither do the people of Buena Vista County.”
Storm Lake Police Chief Mark Prosser, who employs two bilingual community service officers, said anti-immigrant sentiment has cooled considerably in the past decade. City officials have gone on at least one trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is where many of the city’s Mexican immigrants come from, and Prosser said the community at home is blending together.
The numbers seem to say there’s little alternative.
No single race or ethnic group makes up 50 percent or more of the 10,674 in Storm Lake. The 2010 census pegs Storm Lake’s non-Hispanic white population at 48.2 percent. Hispanics make up the next largest block at 36.1 percent, followed by Asians at 9.8 percent.
How those groups vote likely will be split, too.
Jorge Gallaga, 21, works in the information technology department of the Storm Lake Community School District. He says 2012 will be the first presidential election in which he can vote. He’s undecided.
“I talk about (politics) with two friends,” Gallaga said. “My one white friend, I think he’s a Republican. My Hispanic friend likes Obama. They both try to convince me to support their way.”
Storm Lake schools Superintendent Carl Turner, incidentally, says 18 languages are spoken in the school district.
“It’s a town with no majority,” Grey, the anthropologist, said. “And when everybody is a minority, no one is, if that makes sense.”