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Iowans are far from the Mexican border — here's why they care so much about it anyway

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center at Iowa State University on January 19, 2016, in Ames, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center at Iowa State University on January 19, 2016, in Ames, Iowa.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

By now, it’s taken for granted that Donald Trump, the candidate of anti-immigrant bombast, is a favorite to win or place second in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation primary contest.

But taking a step back, it’s not immediately clear why Iowa, a landlocked state more than 1,000 miles from a border town like El Paso, Texas, would take so fondly to Trump’s proclamation that he will build a "great" wall between the US and Mexico — and end illegal immigration once and for all.

It turns out the answer is simple: Iowans are becoming more aware of immigration because they are seeing more immigrants in their own state.

Iowa’s Latino population has shot up in the past 20 years, from making up about 1.1 percent of Iowa’s total population in 1990 to about 5.2 percent in 2014, according to census estimates.

It is important to note that not all Latinos are immigrants, and not all the immigrants making their way to Iowa are Latino. But experts do believe that the sudden rise in Iowa’s Latino community can be largely attributed to immigrants in search of work coming to the state for its many agriculture jobs.

Iowa derives about a third of its economy from agriculture, which may explain the need for migrant workers in the state. But even if the workers are needed, that doesn’t mean they’re welcome.

It’s not a trend unique to Iowa. Midwestern states across the board have seen huge surges in their Latino populations, driven mostly by the need for additional farmhands.

The job openings are created in large part by Iowa’s other demographics: Young people are moving away from the state, and its graying population is less able to take on physically demanding farm work. So immigrants — many of them unauthorized — are filling in the gaps.

That trend has fueled the notion that immigrants are stealing jobs from other Iowa residents: Immigration opponents believe immigrants are willing to accept lower salaries and dodge taxes. That fear, coupled with a generalized anxiety that terrorists might slip unnoticed across the border, has drummed up an unprecedented desire to end the influx of newcomers from the southern border.

Forty-seven percent of Iowa voters said in a September poll that they would support deporting all 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US. Among Trump’s backers, support for forced deportations rose to 73 percent.

It’s easy to see, then, why the machismo infusing the immigration rhetoric this cycle — from the border fence of lore to a wall and then to forced deportations on a mass scale — would appeal to this audience. That’s a lot of the reason these voters — mostly Republicans, some Democrats – find Trump’s candidacy so compelling.

But there’s something simpler going on here. Yes, immigrants of Latino origin are moving in great numbers to states like Iowa. Yes, they are taking many open jobs in agriculture.

But there is less evidence to suggest that the jobs they are taking are depriving other Iowans of work. The state’s unemployment rate, at 3.4 percent in November, is one of the lowest in the nation.

Rather, it might have more to do with the size of the Latino population. At about 5 percent of the state’s total population, Latinos are present enough to loom large in the consciousness of other Iowans, but not large enough to be ubiquitous.

Research has found that the size of an immigrant group plays a large role in how it is perceived by the native population. People fear immigrants because they are not familiar with immigrants’ culture and values. It makes sense, then, that relatively small immigrant groups tend to drum up more anti-immigrant sentiments. The larger an immigrant population, the more familiar they seem.

But in Iowa, tough talk on immigration has made for such good politics that the other top Republican contender in that state, Ted Cruz, has adopted the line. "People are picking up all of my ideas, including Ted, who started talking about building a wall two days ago," Trump told Politico in early January. "The fact is, they won't get it built, they don't know how to do the job, and they won't get Mexico to pay for it."