Reeder: Immigrant fears still linger in heartland

“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

– U.S. Rep. Steve King, R- Iowa

SPRINGFIELD – Having spent most of my life living in the rural Midwest, I’ve become accustomed to hearing, “I have nothing against immigrants, just illegal immigration.”

Baloney. Our nation’s anti-immigrant undercurrent is fueled by fear, mistrust and apprehension about “others.” Look no further than Iowa Congressman Steve King’s statement: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

Doesn’t he realize we have always been a nation composed of “somebody else’s babies?”

I was particularly incensed by the congressman’s statement because I once lived in what is now his district. But I have to admit King’s mindset reflects a too common viewpoint. As in much of the rural Midwest, large immigrant populations can be found in meat-packing towns scattered across his district. 

The meatpacking industry has long been an immigrant-centric endeavor. In Upton Sinclair’s novel, “The Jungle” the protagonist was a Lithuanian butchering cattle at the turn-of-the 20th Century in Chicago.

Today those jobs are more likely to be held by immigrants from Latin America, southeast Asia and Africa, and the work is more likely to be done in small towns. Once homogenous small towns have become melting pots of various ethnicities. Whether they have a visa in their hip pocket or not is really of little concern to those who complain about immigrants.

It will usually manifest itself with words like, “This town’s a changin’ – and not for the better.”

Of course, not everyone in small towns thinks that way. My late aunt, Barb Hamilton, lived in rural Schuyler County all her life. When African immigrants began appearing in her small town to work in a nearby pork-processing plant, she volunteered to help find beds and other furnishings for them.

It didn’t matter to her that these were the first black faces the town of Rushville had seen for many years. They were her neighbors and she made them feel welcome.

As a teenager, I remember working on a hayrack with a fellow who complained about Mexicans coming to this country to take jobs away from fellows like him. When he wasn’t complaining about Mexicans, he was complaining about the hard work he had to do. Go figure.

Two of the best interns I have ever had, Jenny Lee and Karina Gonzalez, were children of immigrants. They knew how to work hard and took very little for granted. And that has long been the story of this nation. Immigrants come take jobs that native-born folks turn their noses up at. Their children work hard and achieve the American Dream. And the next generation is fully assimilated into the middle-class.

Unfortunately, some politicians have taken to exploiting fears about immigrants to garner votes. The bottom line is that immigrants have long made this country stronger. 

A path to citizenship needs to be offered to those who have come here illegally to support their families and our nation needs to offer more legal immigration opportunities to those, particularly from Latin America, who want to come here.

And we need to be more understanding to those who are already here.

After all, wouldn’t you cross a river to feed your family?

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at

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