Monday, August 28, 2000

Iowa woos immigrants to stem population drop

New York Times

MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA -- No one would call Iowa a melting pot. Nearly 96 percent white, the state, striated with farm fields and small towns, may have more kinds of cows and corn than nationalities of people.

And the immigrants Iowa does have, about 2 percent of the population, have become so controversial that twice in the past three years the state Legislature was embroiled in debates over proposals -- not passed -- that English be made Iowa's official language. Some Iowans contend that immigrants cause crime and burden schools, health care and welfare programs.

So it is all the more surprising that Iowa is proposing something no other state has done: an all-out immigrant recruitment drive.

The proposal is to make Iowa what a governor's commission calls an "immigration enterprise zone," and the possibilities include seeking an exemption from federal immigration quotas -- an unprecedented request that could require congressional action.

Other ideas involve making Iowa a priority destination for refugees, helping companies recruit employees abroad, even having the governor make sales pitches to prospective emigres. The state also wants more federal immigration agents in Iowa's district to process newcomers faster.

The idea is to ease Iowa's population deficit, bringing in enough people to create a work force for a vibrant economy. Iowa, which hemorrhaged families during the farm crisis of the 1980s and still loses young people after high school, has fewer residents than it did 20 years ago. And with an unemployment rate of 2 percent, there will not be enough workers to allow many new businesses to open, or existing ones to expand or even replace retirees.

A Midwest problem

The problem is shared across the Midwest, where states such as Nebraska offer scholarships to keep bright students from leaving. But Iowa's proposal is extraordinary because the state is convinced that it must look outside U.S. borders.

"The point is we need more people," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. "Part of that can be done by trying to keep young people here. Part of it can be done by trying to bring Iowans back to the state. But an aspect of it has to be a program or plan or some kind of method by which we become a welcoming state for people from different cultures."

Vilsack knows that some Iowans, and immigrants, may have trouble adjusting.

"I'm not naive enough to think that this is going to be sort of a Pollyanna type of deal," he said. "It's going to be a struggle."

In Marshalltown, for example, a town of 30,000, the influx of several thousand Mexican immigrants to work at a meatpacking plant has not been universally embraced. This month, a petition was submitted to the county board of supervisors calling for county business to be printed in English only.

"It's great for liberals to say we're all immigrants," said Biff Dysart, who edits Marshalltimes magazine. "But if you look back at all of our families when they came here, they all did their level best to assimilate. The current crop of immigrants not only does not want to assimilate. They drive around town with Mexican flags flying from their antennas, and they refuse to even learn the language, many of them do."

Immigrants and those who welcome them say the state faces a tough job.

"They're going to need to work to deal with the stereotypes," said Sandra Charvat Burke, a demographer at Iowa State University who lives in Marshalltown and heads a town diversity committee. Burke said the state should be prepared to hire paraprofessionals in the schools to work with immigrant students so native Iowans do not feel their children are shortchanged.

Nora Cano, a Mexican immigrant, said there should be more interpreters at health clinics and other services and more English classes for adults. Cano, 31, said that while some people in Marshalltown were friendly, she had also had anti-immigrant epithets yelled at her and was denied service by a cashier.

Committee's idea

The idea of making Iowa an Ellis Island of sorts came from a bipartisan committee appointed by Vilsack, Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years, to devise a plan to help the state thrive by 2010. The committee of 37 prominent Iowans set goals such as making Iowa technologically competitive and developing tourism and other nonagricultural industries.

With each goal, the committee kept realizing, "Gee, we can't do this if we don't have any people," said Jerry Kelley, the mayor of Indianola, who headed the 2010 Committee's population group. "Don't you know we have a disaster?"

Iowa ranks third in the nation in the percentage of elderly. The average farmer is 58 years old.

"If Iowa retains every single one of its graduating high school students between now and 2005, we'll have a decrease of 3 percent of the available work force," said Kelley, adding that North Dakota would be the only other state with a net loss.

The committee recommended that Iowa, which has an estimated 2.87 million people, add 310,000 working people by 2010. That includes building on recent efforts to urge young people to stay and lure far-flung Iowans home. (Last year, Vilsack hit Manhattan, holding a party at Tavern on the Green for former Iowans in New York.)

But the committee became convinced that more immigrants were vital, said its chairman, David Oman, an AT&T executive and former Republican candidate for governor.

"We all sort of held our breath when it was time to release the report," he said. "We weren't sure what the reaction would be."

A draft of the report has certainly created a stir.

Though the plan calls for attracting a wide range of employees, some skeptics worry that only low-wage workers will come to Iowa and depress wages. Others fear a flood of highly skilled employees that would leave fewer choice jobs for Iowans.

Questions raised

Immigrant advocates such as Sandra Sanchez, director of the immigrant rights project of the American Friends Service Committee in Des Moines, praise the proposal. But they also raise questions.

"Our state is not really equipped to deal with a high population of foreign-born immigrants," Sanchez said. State services, she said, "do not have bilingual staff; they haven't received culturally appropriate training."

In recent years, immigrants -- from Bosnia, Sudan and especially Mexico -- have been the only reason Iowa's population has had any net growth. Many come after living in other states, easing their adjustment.

The 2010 Committee proposes "diversity welcome centers" to help immigrants find housing, learn English and find health care.

Most other details remain undetermined. Vilsack said he hopes much of the money for the plan can be shifted from other government programs.

It is also unclear how or whether to exempt Iowa from federal immigration restrictions. An aide to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said one idea was legislation allowing Iowa's immigrants to "not count against the overall number [allowed in the United States] for a period of time."