DES MOINES, Iowa -- Bucolic Iowa seems like an unlikely destination for
Not only is the state's population more than 95 percent white, this also
the place where anti-immigrant ads ran earlier this year during the
presidential caucuses. There have been at least two unsuccessful efforts
enact English-only state laws, and some lawmakers have tried to find
local law enforcement to work more closely with federal immigration
That's why a recent recommendation by the state's Strategic Planning
has drawn so much attention. The panel wants Iowa to be designated an
"immigration enterprise zone" so the state could seek exemptions from
immigration quotas, making it easier for people to move to Iowa and work
Gov. Tom Vilsack, Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years,
council of 37 prominent Iowans. The panel spent more than a year
state's problems and demographic trends and projecting what needs to be
to make this a more viable and vibrant state.
Heading the list of eight goals in the initial draft report is one
for the state to increase its population, estimated at 2.87 million in
by 310,000 by 2010. The report states that while luring ex-Iowans and
from other states, Iowa needs to become a more attractive and welcoming
for immigrants. In addition to urging that officials seek to have Iowa
declared an "immigration enterprise zone," the proposal calls for the
of "diversity welcome centers."
The proposal has drawn praise, skepticism and outright scorn. Some
immigrant advocacy groups expressed concern that the new proposal is aimed only at highly skilled workers. Others worry that it is only a way for employers to get more workers for less money.
'A ticking bomb'
But those who served on the planning council say their state's future
literally depends on attracting more people, including immigrants.
"I would say to any Iowan who works at a place like John Deere, who
want to work next to someone who doesn't look like him, that he better
to. Or he may find himself standing in the unemployment line," said
Kelley, the mayor of Indianola, just south of Des Moines.
Mr. Kelley headed an all-important population subcommittee for the
council. He said that after the group began looking at census data,
demographic information and projections, "We discovered that there was a
ticking bomb in the middle of Iowa."
David Oman, an AT&T executive who led the council that produced the
described some of the data as disturbing and scary.
Among the findings:
The state has fewer residents than it did in 1980, when its population
There are 137,000 fewer school-age children today than in 1980.
People 65 and older make up 15 percent of Iowa's population. By 2020,
will account for 20 percent.
In addition to projections for lower tax revenues, if the trends
the state is almost certain to lose one of its five seats in the U.S.
Mr. Oman, Iowa state officials and others stressed that the immigration
proposal is among several long-term proposals. Plans include developing
to keep more graduating Iowans from leaving the state, diversifying the
state's still-heavily agricultural economy with an eye to becoming more
leader in biotechnology, and improving Internet and communication links
throughout the state.
"The intent really was to grab the state by the lapels and ask Iowans to
at the reality and find ways to change that," said Mr. Oman, who is a
Republican, indicating the initiative's bipartisan support. "We realized
if we didn't change anything, we would not see the kind of growth needed
sustain the quality of life we all want."
Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson put it more bluntly: "We don't have the luxury
of staying the way we are."
"If none of these recommendations are followed, Iowa would still be a
different place 10 years from now," Ms. Pederson said. "We won't be the
in 10 years, no matter what."
Mr. Oman noted that Iowa has already begun to change. And immigrants are
of that change.
He mentioned, for example, that in the 1980s, about 15,000 Southeast
refugees were successfully resettled in the state. More recently, people
fleeing conflicts in places such as Bosnia and the Sudan have found
And so have Hispanic immigrants.
Drawn by the lure of plentiful jobs, better pay and a good environment
raise their families, more Hispanics are making Iowa their home.
Officially, the U.S. census reported that about 32,000 Hispanics were
in Iowa in 1990, when the state's total population was 2.78 million. A
census estimate put the number of Hispanics at nearly 57,000.
But Elizabeth Salinas Newby, who heads the state's division on Latino
affairs, said even that might be too low. Based on the number of
children enrolled in schools throughout the state, Ms. Salinas Newby
some estimates place the number of Hispanics in Iowa closer to 73,000.
Ms. Salinas Newby said she is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the
Strategic Planning Council's proposal.
"For example, the term 'immigration enterprise zone,' what exactly that
means, I don't think anyone really has a clue yet," Ms. Salinas Newby
"And from what I see, these 'welcome centers' seem to be geared more to
higher-skilled immigrants, not those who are low-skilled but still
Similar concerns were voiced by Sandra Snchez, director of the
Rights Project of the American Friends Service Committee in Iowa.
"In general, this proposal is a very positive vision. It is important
immigrant contributions be recognized," Ms. Snchez said. "But I believe
implementation of this proposal will present many challenges."
In particular, Ms. Snchez said, she is worried that immigrants and the
organizations that historically have worked with them have been left out
any planning groups.
And, she noted, there have already been encounters between immigrants
local residents. Several meat processors or other large agri-business
concerns have opened plants in rural Iowa communities. That has at times
produced friction between local residents and Hispanic immigrants hired
"People are now more sensitive to what having a meatpacking plant in
community means," Ms. Snchez said. "They now know, for example, that
a plant like this move into your community does not necessarily mean
the jobs are going to local people."
This year, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an
based in Washington that favors greater immigration restrictions,
advertisements in Iowa that featured what it called the negative impact
immigration on towns such as Storm Lake, a town of about 9,000 people in
northwest part of the state.
Dan Stein, executive director of the federation, said Storm Lake is a
example of what can happen when a big meatpacking plant opens in a
to import cheap labor.
Among the ills blamed on the plant and its immigrant hires were
crime and economic decline.
After the ads ran, many town residents, including the mayor, were
saying some of the scenes portrayed were not even photographed in their
But Mr. Stein claims his organization has strong support.
"We studied Iowa pretty closely when we were doing that ad campaign, and
poll found that 62 percent of overall voters favored greater
restrictions," Mr. Stein said.
He said that as far as he's concerned, the issue comes down to employers
wanting to gain an advantage by having an abundant supply of
low-educated and low-wage workers. He said he saw the Iowa 2010 proposal as an attempt to turn the state into "one big Storm Lake."
"Putting aside all eulogies for the benefits of diversity, there is no
evidence that Iowa's economic prosperity is going to be built on the
low-wage immigrant labor," Mr. Stein said.
But Iowa officials who have been working on the plan reject the notion
their immigration effort is aimed solely at recruiting more low-skilled
workers or conversely, more high-tech workers.
Mr. Oman, the planning council's chairman, noted that the effort to turn
state into a leader in biotechnology and improve its Internet and
telecommunication industries means that high-tech, highly skilled
would definitely be needed.
Indeed, the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, recently traveled to
to lobby for legislation that would increase the number of high-tech
visas allowed each year.
"We're talking about going after populations at all different income
because that is what will be needed. A sound economy needs labor at all
levels; everybody can't be a genetic scientist," he said.
And just what form the immigration portion of the council's plan takes
yet to be decided.
Exemptions from quotas
Generally, the council's draft report, expected to be finalized and sent
the governor by Labor Day, notes that by becoming an immigration
zone, Iowa could seek exemptions from federal immigration quotas.
It urged the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to promptly
immigrants relocating to Iowa. It also recommended looking at state laws
regulations to ensure they too provide a welcome to new residents,
making sure fair housing and wages rules are enforced.
The planning council also urged providing the necessary "social and
infrastructure to meet the needs of new populations" in communities
immigrants are settling.
David Ochoa couldn't contain himself when he heard about the efforts.
He leapt out of his chair, clapped his hands and said in a mixture of
and Spanish: "Wow! Finally, it's about time."
"That's the kind of thing I have been looking for," said Mr. Ochoa, a
of Guatemala who moved to Iowa about five years ago to work for a
plant. "The kinds of obstacles and barriers we face, no one can even
Mr. Ochoa lives in the small town of Perry, population about 7,000,
of Des Moines. He now works for a company that manufactures car-wash
equipment, but he still feels a close bond to the workers at the plant
brought him to the Midwest.
Like many Hispanic immigrants in Iowa, Mr. Ochoa first worked in other
states. He arrived in California and spent several years in Rhode
"When I first got here, I saw a lot of racism. In many respects, people
see us as if we're from another planet or something," he said. "But the
is, we have certain responsibilities we too need to learn and exercise
order to fit in, and not all of us do that."
The driving issue
Mr. Ochoa said he knows very specific ways in which the state of Iowa
make itself more welcoming for immigrants such as him. First, he said,
state should stop requiring legal immigration status for people trying
obtain a driver's license.
"There are some states where one can go to the driver's license bureau
get one by presenting papers such as a Mexican passport," he said. "But
we need to prove we are legal, and many are not, so they go without a
driver's license, and that means they also go without car insurance."
Li Zhou, a native of mainland China, has been in Iowa since 1996 when
arrived to study at Iowa State University.
Ms. Zhou, 30, recently graduated with a master's degree in civil
She works for a company under contract for the state department of
transportation and is designing a bridge on Interstate 235 in Des
Her biggest concern is that she can only extend the H1-B visa under
is working until 2006. She has started the paperwork to become a legal
permanent resident, but the INS backlog is so huge that she fears her
visa may expire before her green card is issued.
"Also, in Iowa, because there are not many immigrants, most employers
have any idea of how immigration laws work, so some people don't want
anything to do with someone who has an H1-B visa or even a green card. I
think most employers should have better education about this," Ms. Zhou
This is especially important, she said, because so many immigrants find
such a great place to live.
Just ask Antonio Zarete, 52, who has lived in the United States for
years. He had been living in central California, working mostly as a
farmworker, but he came to Iowa about eight months ago.
"What I have found here is like something out of a dream," he said.
"Everything is so beautiful and peaceful, that it is the perfect place
He works cleaning office buildings.
"This is a state where it never even crossed my mind that I would want
live here," said the native of the Mexican state of Michoacn. "One day,
everybody else, I would like to return home, but for right now, I'm very
Sonia Sandoval, 40, says there is nothing difficult about living in
the harsh winters nor the relatively few Spanish-speaking residents.
Ms. Sandoval is originally from El Salvador but has lived in the United
States for about 12 years, the last five in Iowa.
She, too, works as an office cleaner.
"It is very simple: We like it here because of the work. As long as you
a job and are healthy, nothing else really matters," she said.