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Tiny Town in the Heartland Creates Homegrown Sanctuary

West Liberty, Iowa, offers unofficial sanctuary through language, education and a tight-knit community.

Driving into West Liberty on Highway 6 feels like driving into any other small Iowa town. Corn and soy fields give way to small mom-and-pop businesses with colorful signage; the city’s downtown could be pulled out of a 1950s Norman Rockwell painting. The New Strand Theatre’s bright-red marquee draws the eye, but other businesses stand out, too. There’s Acapulco Mexican Bakery, with its fresh conchas and Spanish-speaking cashier, and New York Dollar Store, which sells pepita verdes (pumpkins seeds) and hoja de laurel (bay leaves).

Unusual sights for an Iowa town with a population of 3,737.

Near the end of West Third Street is a wire-fenced, beige building: West Liberty Foods, a turkey processing plant and the city’s largest employer. Ever since it opened in 1943, the plant has drawn Latino and Hispanic immigrants.

But there was a history of immigration to West Liberty long before the processing plant opened. The town was once at the crossroads of two major railways, and people moved to West Liberty in the early 1900s to work on the rails. In 1933, John Ponce became the first Latino student to graduate from West Liberty High School — and the town would only continue becoming more diverse.

Today, West Liberty is the first Hispanic-majority town of any significant size in Iowa. According to the U.S. Census’ 2015 American Community Survey, just over half of town residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. This stands in stark contrast to the rest of the state of Iowa, which is only about 5 percent Hispanic/Latino. Now, as the Trump administration threatens funding cuts to communities that declare themselves sanctuary cities, West Liberty offers another kind of sanctuary through language, education, and a tight-knit community.

West Liberty is located in Muscatine County, on the eastern side of the state, not far from Davenport and Iowa City. In the 2016 election, the majority of Muscatine County voted for Donald Trump. However, according to the local newspaper, the West Liberty Index, only 569 votes in this small town went to Trump, while 1,074 went to Hillary Clinton. President Trump, who ran on anti-Mexican immigrant rhetoric, won the state.

Because of the railroad and the turkey plant, immigration from Spanish-speaking countries isn’t new to West Liberty. Over time, the community adapted, accommodating not just Spanish-speaking immigrants, but other immigrants as well.

In the early 1970s and 1980s, then-Gov. Bob Ray pledged to bring thousands of Tai Dam refugees, originally from Southeast Asia, to Iowa. Asians — which include Laotians and Tai Dam — make up about 5 percent of West Liberty’s population. Southeast Asian immigrants continue to move to employment centers around the state.

In West Liberty, John Ponce’s granddaughter, Cara McFerren, believes that history of people moving in from other countries established a more understanding attitude.

Now a member of the West Liberty City Council, McFerren lived in other cities in Eastern Iowa but visited her grandparents in West Liberty often and eventually moved back. As she paints a poster for the upcoming production of Don Quixote for the local Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre, McFerren talks animatedly about the town.

“I don’t really see the quick-to-judge [attitude],” she says. “I don’t see a lot of the community as a whole negatively impacting immigrants, immigration, people of different cultures. I think it’s because our community really embraced it.”

To be sure, not everyone in town shares that sentiment. Several hundred, after all, voted for Trump, and some refer to the Hispanic residents as “those people” — the people who live close to downtown in less-expensive housing. Most white residents live farther out.

But Luz, a senior at West Liberty High School and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, said she feels more comfortable in West Liberty than other towns. Wearing a pink-speckled black sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Iowa,” she spoke about her experiences growing up in West Liberty. The high school — about 300 students — like the town, is small, which provides a feeling of safety — sanctuary — for Luz who, by school district policy, is identified by only her first name for this story.

“I feel safe here, because I know almost everybody in town.”

She said she’s felt different in other parts of Iowa.

“I just don’t feel the same environment — I feel intimidated. I always fear being discriminated in other towns, because of being Hispanic, because I don’t know how they are. I don’t know if they’re a racist town.”

After the election, Luz said she started to grow especially concerned for her parents — Mexican immigrants who speak limited English.

“When I go outside of town, I’m protective in a certain way, especially of my parents, of my mom,” she says. “I fear that someone might say something mean to her, and that she won’t be able to say anything back to defend herself, so I’m kind of protective in that way.”

Before the election, Luz says, she used to venture off by herself when she went shopping with her mom in other towns in Muscatine County. Now she tries to stay close.


Sitting in West Liberty Foods Market and Cafe — a coffee shop owned by the same company that owns the turkey plant — Ed Moreno speaks in a calm voice as his rectangular glasses reflect the cafe’s bright, diner-style decor and lighting. He is president of the town’s council of LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens). LULAC is the largest and oldest Hispanic organization in the United States, but West Liberty’s chapter of LULAC started only four years ago, he said. Since then, membership and interest have increased, especially after the presidential election.

“We recognize what we are and what is needed.” Moreno said.

He said more businesses, especially the ones downtown, are beginning to realize the importance of having bilingual, Spanish-speaking staff.

“In order to be successful, you have to have bilingual staff, and there’s active recruiting [of Spanish speakers].”

The town’s library has also played a role in welcoming immigrants. Janette McMahon, the West Liberty Public Library director, said that in the 22 years she’s worked there, the library has changed to accommodate the community’s needs.

When McMahon started at the library in 1995, the small section devoted to books written in Spanish consisted mainly of “How to Speak English” manuals. Today, 25 percent of the books available for checkout are written in Spanish, from El Codigo Da Vinci (The Da Vinci Code) to Crimen y Castigo (Crime and Punishment).

The library’s collection isn’t just for newcomers.

“There have been fourth- and fifth-generation families here,” McMahon says. “They didn’t stop speaking Spanish. You have grandparents who speak Spanish, and they want their grandchildren to speak Spanish.”

McMahon said the library is about providing safety and equality for all, including immigrants who may be undocumented.

“I want this to be an extremely safe place. We don’t ask for your Social Security number when you get a library card.”


According to the Iowa Policy Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, an estimated 55,000 to 85,000 undocumented immigrants live in the state. About half of that population lives in five counties, one of which is Muscatine according to Iowa Policy Center estimates.

Recently, LULAC held a forum at St. Joseph Catholic Church to educate undocumented immigrants about their rights, and to have a plan in place should they be served deportation papers, Moreno said.

People still remember the Postville raid, he said.

That was in 2008, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided a meatpacking plant in Postville, about 134 miles north of West Liberty. It resulted in the arrest of 389 immigrants — many of them Hispanic.

West Liberty Police Chief Kary Klinmonth was supposed to speak at the forum about the department’s stance on immigration. However, after some discussion, community leaders felt it would create a greater feeling of safety if Klinmonth delivered his message through video, Moreno said.

In the video, Klinmonth says — in English — “I do not believe the WLPD has the legal authority to enforce immigration laws.” Another officer, Pamela Romero, read the statement in Spanish.

Klinmonth also said the department “will not be doing detainers.”

Even so, West Liberty doesn’t identify as a sanctuary city, and the police department said it will work with ICE in cases involving violent crimes.

McFerren says the City Council is considering implementing something similar to sanctuary policies, but understands that the word “sanctuary” comes with a lot of assumptions and connotations. People in West Liberty are scared and don’t know what is going to happen next, she says.


But as with the efforts at the library, and through LULAC, education is a common thread in the town’s history.

For nearly 20 years, the West Liberty School District has offered a dual-language program, the result of a teacher who, in the mid-1990s, attended a conference where she learned about the approach, and the benefits of teaching subjects in two languages.

She proposed the idea to the local School Board, which agreed, said West Liberty Elementary School Principal Nancy Gardner. With a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Education, the district established the program.

Gardner remembers that most people were supportive. But during the first meeting, when the idea was pitched to parents, some expressed concerns.

“Three or four people felt the district was going to make every child learn Spanish,” Gardner says. “It was miscommunication.”

Since 1999, students from kindergarten through fifth grade learn 50 percent of the material in Spanish and 50 percent in English. After elementary school, students continue learning the language through individual advanced courses.

Parents can choose to enroll their children in the district’s English-only program. However, throughout the years, the district’s dual language program has proved far more popular; it now has a waiting list.

West Liberty Superintendent Steve Hanson says the program isn’t just about learning the language. “Students develop a sense of valuing other cultures.”


Since the election, the community is coming together to help provide as much of a safety net as possible.

A group of teachers from the West Liberty School District is planning to hold citizenship classes for residents, while LULAC is sponsoring a screening for the whole community of the PBS documentary “Beyond Borders” at the local movie theater this spring. That follows a LULAC-sponsored voter-registration drive before last fall’s election.

“If they have fear and concern, we educate both American citizens and American non-citizens,” Moreno says.

The events throughout West Liberty — from students analyzing Spanish literature at West Liberty High School, to LULAC’s immigrant rights forum, to community citizenship classes — have one thing in common: education. Here, learning more is the answer: the answer to fear, to isolation, and to feelings of powerlessness.

Moreno sums it up: “Knowledge helps fear.”

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