Stay, Hide or Leave? Hard Choices for Immigrants in the Heartland


Others said they got along fine with their immigrant neighbors. They ate at the Mexican restaurant, La Amiguita, where Ms. Rivera worked, and admired immigrants who cleaned out reeking livestock pens for $10 to $15 an hour.

But why, they asked, couldn’t the immigrants learn English and come here legally, like their own German and Norwegian ancestors?

For many immigrants in town, it was a season of fear. Some papered over windows and front-door peepholes. Parents who dreaded being detained drew up contingency plans for what should be done with their children and cars.

Hundreds filled the high school gym to press the sheriff about his new approach. What would happen if they were pulled over? Would his deputies conduct immigration raids? Sheriff Larson tried to reassure people that his officers would not target immigrants.

Conversation by conversation, longtime Hampton residents struggled to reconcile their support for the president with the values they cherished: compassion, kindness and charity for their neighbors and friends.

Or in Steve Pearson’s case, for his namesake.

Mr. Pearson, 63, moved to Hampton 30 years ago because it was the biggest town in Iowa without a certified public accountant.

When he and a partner bought a building for their accounting firm, they rented rooms upstairs to Mexican families. Mr. Pearson called them “the amigos” and started carrying a Spanish-English dictionary. He helped them get loans and wire money home.

“The fact that we were renting to illegals, that bothered some people,” Mr. Pearson said. “My thought was, why not tell the politicians to change it? It’s in Exodus: Be kind to foreigners because you were foreigners once in the land of Egypt.”

One of the amigos stood out. He was a teenager from Veracruz who had arrived with his father and younger brother. His name was Jesús.

Jesús grew up, spent several years working in North Carolina, and returned to Hampton with a woman named Edith who had been attracted to his athleticism, work ethic and quiet humility. They had a son: Steven.

Steven, named for the mustachioed landlord who had treated the Canseco family so kindly.

Now living 2,000 miles away, Mr. Canseco still says that “the greatest man I know in the U.S.A.” is Mr. Pearson.

But times have changed.

And last year, Mr. Pearson, a conservative Republican, yearned for a change in the White House, despite his misgivings about the candidate promising it.

“There has been an illegal immigration problem for 30 years,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of The Mason City Globe Gazette. “The medical health insurance crisis has existed now for about 20 years. And the USA has been at war in the Middle East for 15 years. And there is no end in sight to these problems.

“So why not vote for Trump?”

Six months into Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Pearson said he still thought the country’s immigration system was broken. He was angered by the fate of the Canseco-Rivera family, though he noted that Mr. Canseco had been deported on President Barack Obama’s watch, not Mr. Trump’s.

Give people like them work permits, Mr. Pearson said. Give them residency. “I’m angered by the stupidity of it all,” he said. “Here’s 10 million people — ‘Let’s grab this one.’ It’s very sad.”

Ties That Bind

Lives are braided together in Hampton. After Mr. Canseco was arrested, the city’s police captain, a retired school principal and Mr. Pearson all wrote to the court on his behalf.

Another letter came from Megan Pearson Rosenberg, 37, Mr. Pearson’s daughter — who is also one of Ms. Rivera’s closest friends.

The two women met through their children when Steven Canseco was not yet school age.

Ms. Rosenberg’s son, Mickey, now 14, is a few months older than Steven, and her daughter, Lily, 9, shares Steven’s athletic, adventurous side. When they played, Lily and Steven would scramble and climb around the yard while Mickey sat in a tree reading.

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