By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007
SPENCER, Iowa -- The tiny jail here has housed many a typical small-town Iowa criminal since its bricks were laid in 1938 -- drunk drivers, drug abusers, the occasional thief. These days, though, Sheriff Randy Krukow walks the cell row and behind the bars sees a new kind of increasingly typical lawbreaker: illegal immigrants. Six of the eight men locked up this month were in the country illegally, accused of identity fraud and drug dealing.
They worry Krukow, as did the 99 illegal immigrants he watched being arrested on television last year when federal agents swarmed a meatpacking plant three hours down the road.
Krukow has never entered the variety store that advertises "envios de dinero" -- money transfers -- to Mexico and Central America that opened two years ago on Grand Avenue in Spencer, where antique lampposts are a reminder of the town's founding more than 100 years ago. And across from Krukow's three-bedroom rancher, on a block filled with flags for the local high school and ribbons for U.S. troops, sits a worn beige rental with a sheet in the front window that is home to a group of Hispanic immigrants.
"When the weather's nice, they're all out there talking on their cellphones. All 10 of them," said Krukow, 57. "Don't speak a lick of English, but they are hardworking."
Krukow understands and even sympathizes with what has brought his new neighbors. The hog and chicken confinement plants that opened a decade ago promise a decent wage and a better life. But he wants illegal immigrants gone before Clay County starts to resemble neighboring Buena Vista County, where half of the workforce at a Tyson meat plant is Hispanic and where one in eight residents is an immigrant.
"We've only seen the tip of the iceberg," said Krukow, who has lived in these parts all his life and serves as an elder at a Pentecostal church. "It's still 'God, family, country' here. Illegal is illegal."
The sentiments of voters such as Krukow have propelled the issue of illegal immigration to the fore of the Republican race for president in Iowa, where a relatively small but concentrated influx of newcomers has begun to transform the largely rural, largely white state. Immigrants are drawn to jobs in the agriculture industry that Americans are not filling.
About 20,000 immigrants, most of them Hispanic, have moved to Iowa in the last six years, and the state is now home to about 112,000 of them, according to 2006 U.S. Census figures. More than half are undocumented, according to a 2006 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The Republican presidential hopefuls, particularly front-runners Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, have seized on these numbers and are telling voters on the stump, in TV and radio commercials, and at debates that they will do the most to stem illegal immigration.
Like many other Republicans, Krukow is torn between Huckabee and Romney, who has repeatedly criticized Huckabee's support for tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants while he was governor of Arkansas. Krukow agrees with Romney that undocumented immigrants should not receive government benefits such as tuition breaks, but he understands Huckabee's biblical argument about not punishing children for the sins of their fathers.
The sheriff also admires the Baptist-minister-turned-politician's unabashed Christian faith. It is the same faith that leads Krukow to services every Sunday morning at DaySpring Assembly of God, where the U.S. flag and a cross-bearing Christian banner adorn the stage. He and his wife, Suzanne, also host a Sunday night prayer group for couples at their home.
Still, Krukow wonders whether Huckabee is too soft on immigration. The sheriff is looking for a hard-line candidate who will wall off the border and ensure that taxpayers are not subsidizing illegal immigrants.
Romney has drawbacks, too. Twice this year the company Romney hired to do landscaping work has been caught employing undocumented immigrants, a fact that has not escaped Krukow.
"Would he have kicked them out if he wasn't up for election?" Krukow asked.
"I'm still trying to analyze what has been spoken and what I feel could be true," he added.
The arrival of illegal immigrants is jarring for Krukow, who can imagine no other place than small-town Iowa to live and have a family. Only 545 immigrants are counted among Clay's population of 16,801, but Krukow and his deputies estimate that about 80 percent of them are illegal, based on information they gain from traffic stops. Krukow is an optimist who prays before he worries, but the changes in his county are nagging at him. To him and many other Iowans, the arrival of illegal immigrants joins the demise of the family farm and the exodus of young people from rural communities as yet another sign of the deterioration of the life they once knew.
"We need to make sure that we have opportunities available for our kids and grandkids," Krukow said. "We all have a stake in this. I believe that with all my heart."
There is a "general sense of unease that is expressed here about illegal immigration as another manifestation that rural Iowa is going downhill," said University of Iowa sociology professor Kevin Leicht. "The immigration issue is just kind of another sign that a way of life is slipping away."
Life was simpler when Krukow grew up in Gillett Grove, a town of 50 people a few miles from here. He knew everyone in town, and back then not many people moved away. In fourth grade, he met Suzanne, who laughed at his freckles and red hair. A year after high school, they married.
His father ran a dairy farm, and Krukow rose before dawn each day to work. After serving in the Army National Guard for a few months after high school, Krukow tried his hand at farming corn and soybeans, before becoming a petroleum salesman and finally a police officer. Now, even if he wanted to, Krukow could not make a living working the land.
The price of farmland in Clay County rose 24.7 percent last year to $4,506 an acre, leading more family farmers to sell their land to corporations. At the same time, related industries, such as meatpacking, do not support a worker the way they once did. Wages at slaughterhouses, when adjusted for inflation, have declined by more than 20 percent over the last 25 years to about $10 an hour, said Neil Harl, an economics professor at Iowa State University. The locals don't want the jobs at those wages.
"Maybe we're going soft, but we're not doing the jobs we used to," Krukow said. "We don't want to get dirty."
So workers from Mexico and other countries have come. Iowa's economy needs the laborers, Krukow said, and he respects the work ethic of immigrants he sees heading to the plants before dawn.
Krukow said one immigrant told him that six months of work in Iowa would feed the man's family in Mexico for a year. It reminded Krukow of the papers an aunt recently showed him documenting his great-grandfather Julius Franz Krukow's passage from Germany through Ellis Island in 1893. He, too, was looking for a better life.
"It's about many different colors and many different origins," Krukow said. "America, land of the free, home of the brave. I don't blame anyone for wanting to come here, but at least sign the guest book so you can be taxed the same way I'm taxed, so you can be productive like I'm productive."
Sitting in his office later that day, , the sheriff revealed a deeper worry: "If you can get a human being into the U.S., what else is coming in?"
For the last eight years, Krukow has battled methamphetamine labs, and he said he is working with federal authorities to bring a case against a local drug ring with ties to Mexico. Ninety percent of the people he arrests are white males, but eight years ago that figure was closer to 100 percent. If the federal government does not curb illegal immigration, Krukow believes he will see more cases involving fraud and drugs.
"I don't have the answers," Krukow said, leaning back in his chair. And he does not suspect that any answers will come before Thursday night.
So, he will listen to the precinct captains pitch their candidates on caucus night and make his pick, then pray that God gives the winner the wisdom to lead the country. But just in case whoever becomes president fails to fix immigration, Krukow will continue planning a project he hopes will break ground in the next few years: a bigger county jail.