How Refugees and Immigrants Help Iowa

As Iowa Democrats flock to their caucuses today, let’s take a look at refugee resettlement throughout the state. A central tenet of today’s Republican Party is keeping people out of the country. What does that mean for a state like Iowa?

Members of one small community say it couldn’t survive without refugees.

“If they were to leave, it would be catastrophic for our town,” said Maria Gomez, the vice president of the Columbus Junction School Board in Louisa County.

Immigrants of one kind or another have long made up the fabric of Columbus Junction. Its schools have historically educated the children of the Mexican, Honduran and Salvadoran workers who labor at the Tyson Foods plant that is just outside town. And a new wave of arrivals, the Chin people, Christians fleeing persecution western Myanmar, also known as Burma, moved to Columbus Junction seven or eight years ago. It was a challenge–the Burmese culture is very different from the Hispanic culture of earlier arrivals.

But hard work paid off. Today, members of the Chin community have opened stores in Columbus Junction; others are working at the Tyson Foods plant. They’re essential to Iowa’s economy, because the state’s aging population means that there’s a worker shortage. Immigrants help fill that gap.

What’s happening in Columbus Junction is happening all over the state. More than 30,000 refugees have resettled in Iowa since the 1970s. They are economic powerhouses. Refugee and immigrant-owned businesses in Central Iowa generate $4.1 billion in the state annually. They pay $349 million in local and state taxes.

Refugees are becoming farmers, adapting the skills they brought from their homelands on the other side of the world to Iowa farm fields through Lutheran Lutheran Services in Iowa’s Global Greens Farmer Training Program.

Recognizing how important immigrants are to the state’s economy and seeking to keep our nation’s doors open to workers, (a trend happening across the country), a group of officials and business leaders joined together a year ago to create something called the Iowa Compact on Immigration. The compact was signed by representatives of about 40 business groups, civic and business associations, academics and others. Its goal: to create a federal immigration system that would help the Iowa labor market, a permanent solution for the undocumented immigrants who make important contributions to the state’s economy and a secure southern border.

“The immigration reform principles outlined in the Compact would help Iowa meet its growing workforce needs and drive future economic growth across our state, ” said Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater DesMoines Partnership.

“At the end of the day, immigration reform is about empowering our economy to reach its full potential,” added David Stark, president & CEO of UnityPoint Health in Des Moines. 

And Marty Martin, president of Drake University, put an Iowa spin on the group’s goals. “If there’s one thing we understand about our state’s history, it’s that Iowa isn’t afraid to take the lead on meeting the challenges facing our country,” he said.

His hope: the Iowa compact becomes a model for creating an immigration system that works for all.

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