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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Des Moines, Iowa.

This state's voters hold the nation's first presidential caucuses one month from today. Their choice for a president matters. But it might matter less than choices they make in their daily lives. Consider illegal immigration. The government makes the rules but citizens decide how to follow them.

In Marshalltown, Iowa, an American made choices that got him indicted. He's among many residents living among the immigrant employees at a pork processing plant.

(Soundbite of plant)

INSKEEP: As we've been watching this plant, truck after truck after truck has backed up to a loading dock and offloaded its cargo, which we can hear: pigs. Eighteen thousand pigs per day are brought to this plant and they're processed in this giant facility from which white smoke is rising into the cold Iowa sky.

(Soundbite of plant)

INSKEEP: Swift and Company employs more than 2,000 people here. They include Mexican immigrants like Teresa Rodriguez de Avalos(ph).

Ms. TERESA RODRIGUEZ DE AVALOS: My job is trim neck bone.

INSKEEP: Trimming neck bones, she says. She cuts meat off a pig bone every six seconds all day long. Rodriguez is an American citizen now, but many employees were not. She was working last year when immigration agents moved in.

Ms. DE AVALOS: (Through translator) And a lot of people started running. People (unintelligible) outside, other people hid. And other people just cried.

INSKEEP: Many undocumented workers were deported or convicted of identity theft. They were using other people's names and Social Security numbers.

Mr. MATTHEW WHITAKER (U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Iowa): I think people want the laws enforced.

INSKEEP: And U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker says that was especially true given the sheer number of fake IDs.

Mr. WHITAKER: Immigration did a preliminary analysis of Swift and Marshalltown and found that they had 664 I9s that they knew were false and therefore did - had no idea who that person was. About a third of the workforce, we believed, works under a false identification.

INSKEEP: Which is a lot, I take it.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. It shocked my common sense and reason and decided that we need to do something about it.

INSKEEP: The meat-packing company has not been prosecuted. But a federal grand jury indicted an American. He allegedly advised the workers how to evade authorities.

Braulio Pereyra-Gabino was a union vice president. He gave orientation speeches to Spanish-speaking workers. Court papers say an undercover agent recorded his speech and in it the union leader reassures workers that employers check their ID numbers but not their photos. He tells them what to do if stopped by police: give their real names. Local cops might arrest them for fake IDs but not on federal immigration charges. Prosecutors say they taped Pereyra adding: you can lie to your boss but not the police. His indictment surprised his Marshalltown neighbors, including Jeannie Dela Cruz(ph).

Ms. JEANNIE DELA CRUZ: I've seen his children outside playing and seen his wife outside tending the flowers. I have spoken with different people who have worked at Swift with Braulio and I don't get the impression that he was the person that they went to - that he was their confidante or anything. I certainly never would have thought that.

INSKEEP: In that taped speech, Pereyra said he himself came illegally from Argentina. He won his citizenship and lives with his family in a wood-frame house. He didn't come to the door when we knocked and his lawyer stopped returning our calls.

If you knock on more doors in Marshalltown, you'd find more people who make choices about the immigrants who earn a living here.

Ms. AMY VYBIRAL (Marshalltown Education and Training Center): We are putting our money into the different rows...

INSKEEP: Some immigrants learn English at the Marshalltown Education and Training Center. They include a woman named Maria, who's practicing her numbers.

Ms. VYBIRAL: Okay. Let's count. One, two, three...

MARIA (Student): One, two, three, four...

INSKEEP: The center administrator, Amy Vybiral, treats all students the same.

Ms. VYBIRAL: I don't know their status. We don't ask. Let me put it this way. We ask a Social Security number of everybody who enters, and we require it of no one, so it's not a prerequisite to attend to college.

INSKEEP: By not asking too many questions, the training center avoids a hot political issue: it's whether the government should pay to educate undocumented immigrants. But reality has begun to outrun that debate in the halls of Marshalltown High School.

Ms. BONNIE LOWRY (Principal): Bye, guys. Do you have winter coats?

INSKEEP: The person giving that motherly advice is Bonnie Lowry, the principal, who was a student in these same halls.

Ms. LOWRY: When I graduated in 1973, it was of sea of white faces, and now we're a very diversified school of color.

INSKLEEP: And Lowry is certain that some of today's students came here illegally.

I wonder if it's difficult sometimes to find a line between what's appropriate conduct and what's inappropriate conduct and where you - where you're supposed to stop.

Ms. LOWRY: I know in working with you, those students who are undocumented, who want to do post-secondary education, find that their hands are tied. And so I guess that's probably where I come the closest to walking that fine line.

INSKEEP: Principal Lowry says the children of immigrants did not choose to come here, and her school has begun providing scholarships to good students who need an opportunity, whether they are legal or not. The program directs them to the local community college.

Mrs. LOWRY: And we pay for half their tuition.

INSKEEP: This is dancing close to that fine line because...

Mrs. LOWRY: Exactly.

INSKEEP: There was a law passed that made it much more difficult for states to extend aid to illegal immigrants.

Mrs. LOWRY: And this isn't state aid. It is private. Our local businesses have created a pot of money that is right now gathering interest.

INSKEEP: She says those businesses want to embrace the changing population, even as the debate in Washington drags on. Some Marshalltown residents have faced even more awkward decisions, like a nun at a local Catholic church.

(Soundbite of church service)

INSKEEP: Last Friday night the congregation said the Lord's Prayer in Spanish. They were led by a priest who apologized for being a little late, saying I had so many confessions to hear. Those praying included Sister Christine Fiegan(ph), who makes it her business to help immigrants. She helped families when their fathers or mothers were arrested in last year's big immigration raid.

Sister CHRISTINE FEAGAN: I don't look at people as documented or undocumented. I look at them as people who are here to become a part of our society, part of our people.

INSKEEP: When asked if she has ever skirted close to the law, Sister Christine thought a moment about just how much she wanted to say.

Sister FEAGAN: Well, it was a case of someone who was afraid that she was going to be found out by immigration. And she had nowhere to go. She couldn't go home because immigration had already been there looking for her. And she had nowhere to go, literally nowhere to go. And so we found her someplace to be for a little while. And eventually, through a lawyer, she turned herself in. But the next time that someone comes, I don't know if I would be as, I wouldn't feel as free to say come to my house and stay. I don't want to end up in jail either for helping somebody. And yet on the other hand I feel like I have to help them.

INSKEEP: Sister Christine introduced us to some local immigrants, including that cutter at the meat-packing plant. Teresa Rodriguez de Avalos is the one who cuts meat from a pig's neck bone every six seconds. She's been in the U.S. long enough to face the same question as other Americans.

Now that you are a citizen, what do you think your responsibility or your duty is if you know someone who is not here legally?

Ms. DE AVALOS: (Through translator) I think that what we should do is vote for the people that we think are going to be able to help us.

INSKEEP: When she says I'd vote for people who would help us, Teresa Rodriguez still speaks as though she were among those seeking a welcome to America, even though she at least has made it.

We are reporting from Iowa this week, and at NPR.org you can find out what else Marshalltown is thinking as the Iowa caucuses approach.

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