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Migrants in Iowa wonder whether to leave over a bill that could see some arrested and deported

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A bill in Iowa that would allow the state to arrest and deport some migrants is stoking anxiety among immigrant communities, leaving some to wonder: “Should I leave Iowa?”

The legislation, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, would make it a state crime for a person to be in Iowa if previously denied admission to or removed from the United States. It mirrors part of a Texas law that is currently blocked i n court.

Across Iowa, Latino and immigrant community groups are organizing informational meetings and materials to try to answer people's questions. They’re also asking local and county law enforcement agencies for official statements, as well as face-to-face meetings.

As 80 people gathered in a Des Moines public library community room last week, community organizer Fabiola Schirrmeister pulled written questions out of a tin can. In Spanish, one asked: “Is it safe to call the police?” Another asked: “Can Iowa police ask me about my immigration status?” And: “What happens if I’m racially profiled?”

Erica Johnson, executive director of Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, the organization hosting the meeting, sighed when one person asked: “Should I leave Iowa?”

“Entiendo el sentido,” she said. I understand the sentiment.

Schirrmeister, who hosts a local Spanish-language radio show, explained how long organizers have worked to build a bridge with law enforcement.

“It’s sad how it’s going to hurt the trust between local enforcement, pro-immigrant organizations and the immigrant communities," she said.

Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert told The Associated Press in an email that immigration status does not factor into the department's work to keep the community safe, and he said it would be “disingenuous and contradictory” to incorporate it at the same time law enforcement has been working to eliminate such bias.

“I’m not interested, nor are we equipped, funded or staffed to take on additional responsibilities that historically have never been a function of local law enforcement,” he added.

In Iowa and across the country, Republican leaders have rallied around the refrain that “every state is a border state" as they accuse President Joe Biden of neglecting his responsibilities to enforce federal immigration law. That’s led Republican governors to send troops to support Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, and legislatures to propose a variety of state-level strategies.

Iowa’s lawmakers advanced the measure to address what one lawmaker called a “clear and present danger” posed to Iowans by some migrants crossing the southern border. Republican Rep. Steve Holt acknowledged questions of constitutionality around the bill but ultimately argued that Iowa has “the right, the duty and the moral obligation to act to protect our citizens and our sovereignty.”

“If we end up in a court battle with the federal government, should this pass, bring it on,” Holt said during a subcommittee meeting in February. “I think it’

The Texas law is stalled in court, after a challenge from the U.S. Department of Justice, which says it conflicts with the federal government’s immigration authority. The department did not immediately comment on the Iowa bill.

The Iowa legislation, like the Texas law, could mean criminal charges for people who have outstanding deportation orders or who have previously been removed from or denied admission to the U.S. Once in custody, migrants could either agree to a judge’s order to leave the U.S. or be prosecuted.

The judge’s order must identify the transportation method for leaving the U.S. and a law enforcement officer or Iowa agency to monitor migrants' departures. Those who don’t leave could face rearrest under more serious charges.

The bill in Iowa faces the same questions of implementation and enforcement as the Texas law, since deportation is a “complicated, expensive and often dangerous” federal process, said immigration law expert Huyen Pham of Texas A&M School of Law.

“How are Iowa law enforcement agencies going to determine if someone has entered Iowa in violation of an immigration order?” Pham asked. She said questions remain about which country a detained person would be sent back to, how they would get there and how agencies would communicate with those countries.

Deportations are a binational process, she said, meaning the federal government negotiates with the governments of other countries. Disjointed immigration policy state-by-state could threaten those international relationships, Pham said.

Mexico has already said that it would reject any state or local government enforcement of immigration laws.

The Iowa State Patrol, as well as representatives of multiple police departments and county sheriff’s offices across the state, declined to comment on the bill before it is signed into law.

Shawn Ireland, president of the Iowa State Sheriff’s and Deputies Association and a deputy sheriff in Linn County, said in an email that law enforcement officials would consult with county attorneys for guidance if the bill becomes law.

But Ireland added that community-police relations are a priority, and law enforcement’s focus “is not on looking for people who came to this country illegally and are not committing crimes."

Manny Galvez, leader of the Escucha Mi Voz (Hear My Voice) community group based in the rural city of West Liberty, said the bill has galvanized immigrant communities, including some that are in harder-to-reach areas of Iowa, to send the message that immigration is a human issue and that the state’s economy relies on immigrant labor for jobs such as those in meatpacking plants and construction.

Lawmakers advancing a bill like this one are disconnected from that reality, Galvez said.

“Criminalizing the immigrant community is not the answer,” he said. “We tell people: ‘Don’t be afraid. No tengan miedo. We are going to keep fighting this.’"

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This story has been edited to correct that Ireland is a deputy sheriff, not a sheriff.