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Loss weighs on Iowa town

A deadly car crash involving an illegal immigrant fuels anger and spurs a bill that some say limits rights.

April 25, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA — When Monica del Carmen Gonzalez Lopez drove an SUV into the side of a minivan in October, killing a 90-year-old grandmother and injuring three relatives, investigators found that the 23-year-old had already had several brushes with the law.

Some were minor infractions. Others -- including assault, child endangerment and exposing a child to methamphetamine -- were far more serious.

She was also in the country illegally.

"Every day, I struggle not to be angry," says Ramona Kilborn, 59, who suffered a broken rib and other injuries in the accident. "All I can think is that my mother would likely still be alive if the immigration laws would have been enforced."

The car crash in this central Iowa town -- with a large Latino population, drawn to local industrial and meatpacking jobs -- has added fuel to a growing debate over immigration.

For more than a decade, immigrants both legal and not have helped turn around the bleak demographic trends of towns across the rural Midwest. But many Iowans struggle to find a balance between gratitude for their revitalized towns and growing anti-immigrant sentiments.

The Marshalltown crash has inspired state lawmakers to introduce a bill that would prevent illegal immigrants such as Lopez from bailing themselves out of jail.

Under the proposal, which passed the Iowa lower house last week, law enforcement agencies would be required to hold illegal immigrants until the charges against them were resolved, or federal immigration staff took custody of them.

The bill would also penalize employers who hire anyone here illegally, making it a felony with a maximum fine of $7,500 and up to five years in prison.

Though the proposal drew bipartisan support, some state Republicans dismissed it as a political move by Democrats in a bid to take a firm stance on immigration during an election year. Rep. Christopher Rants, the Republican House minority leader, said it would remain stalled in the Senate.

"We're passing a political document today against illegal immigration, but you don't need to worry that this will ever become law or reach the governor's desk," Rants said during a legislative debate last week.

But state Rep. Clel Baudler, a Republican who helped draft part of the legislation, countered that if the bill was shelved in the state Senate, as is expected, it would be revived. "We're just making sure that the people who flaunt our laws aren't allowed to keep doing so," he said.

Civil liberties groups have opposed the proposal, saying it violates constitutionally protected rights and would tax underfunded local law enforcement agencies.

"There's a fundamental misconception that constitutional protections only apply to citizens of the United States," said Vivek Malhotra, a state strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union's immigrants' rights project. "We're seeing more of this kind of legislation, or variations of it, being introduced across the country."

This month, the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal class-action lawsuit against a 2006 Arizona law that makes illegal immigrants charged with a "serious" crime ineligible for bail. They argue that it is unconstitutional to deny people the right to a court hearing over whether they are a flight risk or pose a danger.

But advocates of stricter measures against illegal immigrants are hopeful the Supreme Court would uphold such ordinances.

"Someone has to take charge," said Iowa state Rep. Rick Olson, a Democrat and a sponsor of the bill. "Who else is going to do it, if we don't?"

According to Iowa's Division of Latino Affairs, the number of Latinos has increased by more than a third since 2000, to more than 115,000. State officials estimate about 40% are in the U.S. illegally.

In Marshalltown, where according to city officials at least a quarter of the nearly 26,000 residents are Latino, immigrants have transformed the once sluggish downtown district. Family run restaurants, decorated with colorful pinatas, are often packed and shoppers flock to supermercados for fresh nopales.

But the town was deeply shaken after two raids in recent years at the Swift & Co. packing plant. Residents have left rather than face anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"I'm tired of being blamed for bad things just because I'm Mexican," said construction worker Jose Luis Padilla, 47, who came to Iowa a decade ago. "That car accident was bad. But not all immigrants are bad people."

For Kilborn, whose mother was killed, the issue isn't about race. It's about following the law.

She and her husband, Merrell, 60, have four adopted children from other countries. "We followed all the rules, from getting fingerprinted at the police station to hiring lawyers and waiting forever to hear whether the government would let this happen," said the retired nurse. "If we can do it, why can't everyone?"

Lopez was charged by local prosecutors with operating a car without a driver's license, said Marshalltown Police Chief David Lon Walker. "She ran two stop signs. It was deemed to be simple negligence."

In November, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported her to Mexico, said spokesman Tim Counts.

"It's a terrible tragedy, but like every law enforcement agency, we have finite resources," Counts said. "We are trying to expand our efforts."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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