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Thu Jun 8 01:18:11 CDT 2000

Iowa panel pushes more immigration

Dorman and Kathie Obradovich, QUAD-CITY TIMES -- June 8, 2000

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- A panel charged with setting a course for Iowa's future growth says the state must have more people in order to prosper, and it says expanded immigration may be a solution.

Encouraging immigrants to make Iowa their new home was a central theme Wednesday when the Iowa 2010 Strategic Council made its very first recommendations after a year of town meetings and work sessions. Gov. Tom Vilsack appointed the 37-member panel, hoping it would draw a policy road map to guide Iowa through the next 10 years.

And its initial shot is already stirring debate. The council recommends Iowa take several steps to encourage a broader flow of immigrants, newcomers who, the panel believes, would help fill a glut of unfilled jobs while bolstering Iowa's stagnant population growth. A lack of new workers, the council contends, could mean multiple perils for the state's economy.

Among its initial ideas, the panel proposes seeking federal permission to make Iowa an "Immigration Enterprise Zone" unrestrained by federal quotas governing the influx of new arrivals. Other recommendations call on state government, schools and local communities to do what they can to encourage immigration, welcome newcomers and provide help once they arrive in Iowa.

Details in the council's complete list of recommendations will be announced later this month.

Council chairman David Oman, a former Republican candidate for governor, said Iowans "must open our hearts, minds and doors to recruiting new Iowans, people from other lands, people from other cultures."

He conceded, however, that immigration is a "tough issue" in a state overwhelmingly populated by white people and a state often wary of any radical change.

And reaction to Wednesday's proposals was mixed on all sides of the politically sensitive issue. Some worried the ideas may go too far, while others were skeptical that one more blue-ribbon panel's report would lead to any real changes.

Sen. Steve King, R-Kiron, said the state must be cautious, especially with regard to the "enterprise zone" proposal. King has been at the center of the immigration debate while pushing for legislation to make English Iowa's official language, a proposal that Oman and others have branded anti-immigrant.

"Not being at all familiar with the concept, again, I'd be concerned it would be a magnet for the undesirable elements of the immigrant population," King said. "We're not desperate by any means. To ask for that special treatment is a bit premature."

And he brushed aside Oman's call to drop the official language effort.

Another lawmaker has changed his views on immigration. Rep. Barry Brauns, R-Conesville, floor-managed legislation in 1998 that implemented a twentyfold increase in fines for companies that hired illegal immigrants. At the time, Brauns said he was worried about preserving job opportunities for those who already live in Iowa.

"Three or four years ago, we were worried about jobs for current Iowans. You couldn't find a job, but now, every place you look needs help," he said. "Things changed and I need to change with it."

Brauns said he would support measures to loosen immigration quotas and expedite the relocation of skilled workers to Iowa, adding that he has had personal experience trying to help a company in his district import Mexican workers skilled in concrete manufacturing. He still supports the idea of making English the state's official language.

Outside the Statehouse, James Benzoni is a Des Moines lawyer and founder of the Iowa Immigrant Legal Project. Benzoni has worked to align a network of private, nonprofit entities to assist immigrants, and he fears the council's recommendation will lead either to inaction or unnecessary government bureaucracy.

"It's like, 'OK, are you guys ready to take a look at these things yet or are you still just talking?' I think they're still just in the talking stage," said Benzoni, whose group has tried unsuccessfully to meet with Vilsack. "I think he's right on the money. It's just when is the state going to get serious? This stuff has been said before."

Terri Rauhaus coordinates the Muscatine School District's English as a Second Language, or ESL, program and a summer school for migrant workers' children. She supports the council's call for stronger ESL services. But she said Muscatine is having a rough time finding ESL teachers.

"We have three positions to fill and we're having a difficult time getting qualified applicants," she said. One position was left unfilled during the past school year, she added.