AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The unemployment rate is at a nearly 50-year low. Lots of employers say they're struggling to find qualified workers. This week, NPR is taking a closer look at the tight labor market. Business groups say one solution is to let more people into the country from other places. But in states like Iowa, that view is at odds with tough new policies meant to combat illegal immigration. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: At Jean C. Wiley & Sons' construction company, two workers are making cabinets for a new house. When company president Ted Wiley hires people, he trains them in woodworking and carpentry. Even so, he has trouble finding good people.
TED WILEY: It is so hard to get people in the door just to sit down and interview. It's - you just - you're afraid you're going to scare them off - any little thing that you do. They won't show up for the first day of work.
ZARROLI: The place where Wiley lives, Mount Pleasant, is a working-class town tucked amid the Iowa farm fields. It has a little college and a quaint tree-lined square rimmed with shops and restaurants. It's also small - only about 8,000 people. Not a lot of outsiders move here, and the job market is as tight as it's been in anyone's memory. There are 300 open jobs. Like a lot of business owners, Wiley says there's a solution. This part of Iowa needs to attract more immigrants. Wiley says he knows there are people who shouldn't be in the country - undocumented people, even criminals.
WILEY: But I can also tell you that there are - I know that there are a lot that come in that are just here for a better life for their family - no different than any of the rest of us. As far as I'm concerned, we've got room for them.
ZARROLI: But immigration is a controversial issue in Mount Pleasant these days because of something that happened last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: After a massive immigration raid rocked the Mount Pleasant community.
ZARROLI: One day last May, immigration agents swept into the Midwest Precast Concrete company on the edge of town. I spoke to one plant worker who says around lunchtime, he went out to buy food.
UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: (Through interpreter) I'd just gotten back from the store. I was in the car eating when all of a sudden, they arrived - the helicopter, the patrol car, the Mount Pleasant sheriff. They took me out of the car and put handcuffs on me and on everyone else, too. They even had a dog.
ZARROLI: The worker didn't want his last name used because his case is still being heard by a judge. He is from Mexico. And though his wife is American, he hadn't yet completed the lengthy process of getting citizenship, so he got his job by buying someone's Social Security number. He earned $13 an hour. When immigration officials learned he was working illegally, he was put in a van and taken to a detention center, along with 31 other men.
UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: (Through interpreter) A lot of things were going through my mind, such as losing everything - my family, my job, years of sacrifice and work. It was very hard, and we haven't gotten over it.
ZARROLI: In Mount Pleasant, the raid would ignite a debate about who should be allowed into the community. Rallies were held to support the man. A food pantry was set up for their families at the First Presbyterian Church. But Reverend Trey Hegar says some people hardened their hearts to the workers.
TREY HEGAR: There were people who said, well, that's what you get if you're here illegally or undocumented. There was little compassion or understanding for that.
ZARROLI: Some of these people faulted the undocumented workers. Others blamed the company for hiring them. The county where Mount Pleasant sits voted heavily for Donald Trump, and many share Trump's deep skepticism about immigration. Chelsea Sammons, a part-time convenience store clerk, believes companies hire immigrants because they don't want to pay fair wages.
CHELSEA SAMMONS: It's just because they can pay them less money to work the same amount of hours or more. But, I mean, that's how businesses work.
ZARROLI: The debate in Mount Pleasant mirrors a debate in Iowa as a whole. Seven cities have unemployment rates below 3%. In February, business leaders formed a group aimed at encouraging more immigration. They say outsiders will be good for the state. They make the economy more vibrant. But the Iowa Legislature has passed several bills cracking down on illegal immigration. Among the sponsors is Republican State Senator Julian Garrett.
JULIAN GARRETT: If you're an honest employer, if you obey the law, and your competitor down the street is violating the law, hiring people who are here illegally - which is a federal crime, of course - that's not fair to you to have to compete with somebody that can lower their costs that way.
ZARROLI: Garrett acknowledges there's a worker shortage, but he says with training and better pay, more native Iowans can be lured back into the workforce. But many business leaders worry that efforts such as these will discourage legal immigrants from coming to Iowa. Kristi Ray of the Mount Pleasant Chamber Alliance says, last year's raid underscores how broken the immigration system is.
KRISTI RAY: That's where I say, who's to blame? The guy that bought the illegal Social Security number - they wanted to go to work. They wanted to take share their family. The company needs workers. That's why immigration is such a hard issue.
ZARROLI: Meanwhile, most of the workers seized in last year's Mount Pleasant raid are free on bond. They're waiting for deportation hearings. There's a backlog of cases, and it will be a year or two before the worker we spoke to earlier sees a judge. His wife says, if he gets deported...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And we'll go to Mexico. We never lived there. I have lived in Iowa all my life. My kids are born here in Iowa. But so my kids aren't separated from their dad, we will do what we have to do to be with him.
ZARROLI: She has a job at a cookie factory, but without her husband's pay, the family is struggling financially. They get by on handouts from churches and a pro-immigration group called Iowa WINS. He says he hates being a burden, but he can't work legally. So he spends much of his time these days sitting at home, waiting, even though plenty of jobs in town are begging for applicants. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.