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Immigrants impact America’s heartland

Denison, Iowa, is an example of how some small towns in American have been affected by immigration. NBC News' Ron Allen reports.

Denison, which has fewer than 8,000 residents, is where folks brag, “It's a Wonderful Life,” as in the film staring its most famous daughter, Donna Reed.

But visit the local grade school and you'll see and hear how immigration is changing America's heartland. More than half the students are brown. St. Rose's celebrates Mass every week in Spanish for families like the Paz's, from Mexico.

“The kids can go to the library,” says Martha Paz. “They can go to the store, five or six blocks from here. They can go to school and it's safe.”

Denison began changing about six or seven years ago. Back then only a few Hispanic families lived here. Now, they're about 25 percent of the population, perhaps more. Most have come here for the same reason — Farmland Foods, a meat-packing plant that's booming with a workforce that’s almost 60 percent Hispanic.

“Without these workers,” says Farmland Foods President and Chief Operating Officer George Ritcher, “you know, Denison would be a much less attractive place to live.”

Adrian Paz has almost 20 years at Farmland. 

“They have good benefits,” he says, “insurance, retirement plan, vacation time, holidays.”

Farmland says it only hires legal workers. But some residents doubt that and, like Councilman Cecil Blum, say their new neighbors take more than they give.

“I guess that I hate to have my culture, my community, put at risk,” Blum says. 

He wants to roll up the welcome mat, saying, “I think we do need a system where we can document everybody that's here.”

Denison, unlike most of Iowa, is growing. Its youngest will soon be leading the way.

“I think kids see kids as kids. You know, 'are you going to play soccer with me?'” says Denison Schools Superintendent Mike Pardun. “They don't see skin color. They don't see someone who speaks another language.”

A town both brown and white is all they've ever known.