LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Well, the main issue for many Iowa voters is the economy. There's an issue re-emerging: Immigration Reform. Iowa's Hispanic population is surging, and Republican candidates are struggling with how best to deal with voter concerns.
From Muscatine, Iowa, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: There's nothing exotic about Muscatine's family style restaurant, just big plates heaping with hearty food. It's open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. And owner Nick Filiz says everyone here seems to be listening closely to the Republican presidential candidates.
NICK FILIZ: I'm, myself, all considering, but I haven't made my mind.
SCHAPER: Filiz says many of his customers, too, tell him they have yet to settle on a choice.
FILIZ: With politicians, there's always a lot of promise. That's very obvious thing. But who will get the job done. That is the main question.
SCHAPER: Filiz immigrated from Turkey, legally, more than 30 years ago. And he says the issue of immigration reform is a big one in this part of Eastern Iowa. Statewide, the Hispanic population has almost doubled over the last decade and is now up to five percent overall.
That growth is concentrated in some towns and counties, where Mexican and Central American immigrants fill jobs in meat packing and poultry plants, factories, and farming. In Muscatine County, the Hispanic population is now 16 percent and growing. And for some employers, such as Filiz, the lack of any immigration policy reform in Washington is frustrating.
FILIZ: In the restaurant business, especially, you know, you get a lot of undocumented aliens. I'd like to see that be solved the right way, you know.
SCHAPER: Filiz is a registered Independent who says he will vote in next week's Republican caucus. He favors a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, similar to what was done under President Reagan in the 1980s. But among Republicans in Iowa, that position is the exception and not the rule.
MILES REINER: I think that people that aren't legal here, need to be sent back.
SCHAPER: Miles Reiner is a 33-year-old fork lift driver from Muscatine, who says he's undecided about who he'll vote for in his caucus, but adds this is an important issue. And his feelings are echoed by retiree Bob Lamb.
BOB LAMB: Yeah, they should deport 'em if they don't come in legally. They take our - they get unemployment, they get welfare, and they pay nothing and they just keep givin' to 'em. That's the way I feel about it.
SCHAPER: The federal raid of a meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa in 2008, the country's biggest such raid to date, has heightened awareness of the illegal immigration issue here. So many GOP voters have a hard time with positions such as Newt Gingrich's, who called for a path to legalized status for some undocumented immigrants in a debate last month.
NEWT GINGRICH: If you've been here 25 years and you've got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully, and kick you out.
SCHAPER: Also not sitting well with some Iowa voters is Texas Governor Rick Perry's defense, in another debate, of his support of in-state tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there, by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart.
TIM HAGEL: And conservatives really didn't like that.
SCHAPER: University of Iowa political science professor, Tim Hagel, says Republicans don't like being called heartless by one of their own. Nevertheless, he says, most Republicans in Iowa don't like any policy that could seem to reward illegal behavior. But he also notes that hard line stances, such as that taken by Michele Bachmann, haven't really helped presidential hopefuls.
HAGEL: Candidates can probably get by with fairly unspecific, not to say vague, but just unspecific, saying something along the lines of, we need to secure the border.
SCHAPER: In other words, Hagel says, the right position on immigration won't likely win a candidate Iowa, but the wrong position could certainly hurt here.
David Schaper, NPR News in Muscatine, Iowa.
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