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Sen. Ernst’s silence on immigration was deafening

Joni Ernst and her husband, Gail, were the first people I met when I moved to Red Oak, Iowa eighteen years ago.  Now, she’s not “just Joni,” she’s “Senator Ernst.”  Last night, she delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.     

But one critical issue, especially for us in Red Oak, that Sen. Ernst (R-Iowa) didn’t mention was immigration.  Red Oak is a small town and we lost 7 percent of our population from 2000-2010. But at the same time, the percent of Latinos residents doubled from 2.15 to 4.2 percent.

{mosads}During Ernst’s response, especially her story of her mother putting bread bags over her children’s shoes to protect them from the snow, I couldn’t help but think of the new immigrants moving to Red Oak and the sacrifices they make to pursue their American dream.

As the director of the Southwest Iowa Latino Resource Center, I meet many immigrants who have relocated to Iowa.  Despite growing up on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border, or across an ocean, they share the same values as many Iowans.  They are motivated—no, driven–by the urgent need to provide for their families.

Some immigrants I know in Red Oak entered the United States with visas, while others came undocumented. That is reality.  The situation must be dealt with by Congress.  In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that would do just that, but it died in the House of Representatives.

This year, neither the Republican-controlled House nor the Republican-controlled Senate appears poised to tackle reform.  That is why President Obama decided to act and create two “deferred action” programs that allow certain immigrants to come forward, pay a fee, undergo a background check, and apply for temporary immigration papers.  The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 18,000 Iowans could qualify for these “deferred action” programs.

Of course, these programs have come under fire from Republicans in Congress—including Senator Ernst—and they are working to try to derail them. (During her speech, Ernst referred to it as “correcting” Obama’s “executive overreach.”) This is sad.  If she succeeds, she will also “succeed” in tearing apart millions of American families a few of which live right here in Red Oak.

And these are “American families.”  The people eligible for Obama’s programs are already Americans in many ways.  They love this country.  They have children who are U.S. citizens.  Still others came to the U.S. as babies, studied and graduated with our kids, only to face an uncertain future under the constant specter of deportation.  

The Joni Ernst that welcomed me to Red Oak eighteen years ago would not order the deportation of a teenager who grew up alongside her own.  Nor would she sanction the separation of a united family with a U.S. citizen spouse or child, simply because one of the parents is undocumented. 

Rather than targeting the families protect by Obama’s deferred action, I hope Senator Ernst will work to pass immigration reform in Congress.  Iowa families, especially in Red Oak, need it.


Jennifer Horner runs the Southwest Iowa Latino Resource Center and is a resident of Red Oak, Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst’s hometown.

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