When the stonewall is the story

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Small towns can be weird places. Take Sibley, for example. Ryan Lizza, a reporter for Esquire, found out while being trailed for three days while trying to do a story on House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes’ family dairy operation.

Lizza called me a while back to see what I knew about Nunes’ parents moving from California to Northwest Iowa. Not much, I replied. He said he was going to Sibley to talk to them. I said, “Good luck.”

He was met with the silence of Latinos and the good Republican Christian dairy farmers engaged in an illegal alliance that serves each of their purposes. The Latinos get jobs far better than in Honduras and safety from death cartels, the dairy barns get hard workers who don’t talk back and work fairly cheap.

The institutional players represent Sibley well. The sheriff makes clear that he does not want to hassle Latinos. So does the café operator and the mayor. They all would like to shield the town from conflict.

But Lizza notices that a white SUV is following him one morning, and a different white SUV follows in the afternoon. He had been warned not to nose around.

Nobody wants ICE in Sibley. Lizza was about to write an invitation.

And that is our hypocrisy behind the veil of secrecy.

We elect Steve King by easy margins. Trump got over 70% of the vote in the Fourth District. They want to deport every last one of those dairy barn workers, almost all of whom are undocumented.

Yet the Wells Brothers down at Blue Bunny need the milk. And the Nunes brothers can get it to them at the price they need with Latino labor, as the other dairy operators admit. Young people able to clean out dairy barns are not exactly flocking to the profession in towns where beer is frowned upon.

So they let the Mexicans in. They depend on them.

If ICE comes, who is going to milk the cows?

Of course, Devin Nunes and Steve King are friends and colleagues in Congress. The entire business is done with a wink. ICE makes select raids, we talk about building a wall and you get cheap ice cream.

The workers are so afraid they can’t even admit to a reporter that they are in Sibley.

I warned Lizza that he was about to run into that cone of silence. But he went anyway, and it makes for an entertaining read as everyone realizes the secret is out: Mexicans are working for Steve King’s friends. The Trump minions themselves must employ who they can and look the other way. It’s all just a big joke among them. If it weren’t, ICE would have shown up already.

The dairy producers recognize that King threatens their business and does nothing for them. But they vote for him anyway, presumably because he is not a Democrat. It might take a raid to shake them into good sense.

It’s funny to watch them circle the wagons when an interloper appears on the ridge, and pathetic to see how Latinos must cower in fear of being found out. There is a sense of community, in that everyone responds to a threat from the outside, even if they are responding only to protect their own economic interest. And there must be a shared sense of shame, somewhere among those who would support King and Trump while trying to hide who really lives there. It speaks to the inherent weirdness of small towns, where some things can’t be explained but always make for good stories. Secrets always are.