USA: Iowa Proposes ''Immigrant Enterprise Zones''

Publisher Name: 
Dallas Morning News

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Bucolic Iowa seems like an unlikely destination for
foreigners.

Not only is the state's population more than 95 percent white, this also
is
the place where anti-immigrant ads ran earlier this year during the
presidential caucuses. There have been at least two unsuccessful efforts
to
enact English-only state laws, and some lawmakers have tried to find
ways for
local law enforcement to work more closely with federal immigration
officials.

That's why a recent recommendation by the state's Strategic Planning
Council
has drawn so much attention. The panel wants Iowa to be designated an
"immigration enterprise zone" so the state could seek exemptions from
federal
immigration quotas, making it easier for people to move to Iowa and work
there.

Gov. Tom Vilsack, Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years,
appointed the
council of 37 prominent Iowans. The panel spent more than a year
studying the
state's problems and demographic trends and projecting what needs to be
done
to make this a more viable and vibrant state.

Heading the list of eight goals in the initial draft report is one
calling
for the state to increase its population, estimated at 2.87 million in
1999,
by 310,000 by 2010. The report states that while luring ex-Iowans and
people
from other states, Iowa needs to become a more attractive and welcoming
place
for immigrants. In addition to urging that officials seek to have Iowa
declared an "immigration enterprise zone," the proposal calls for the
opening
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
doesn't
want to work next to someone who doesn't look like him, that he better
want
to. Or he may find himself standing in the unemployment line," said
Jerry
Kelley, the mayor of Indianola, just south of Des Moines.

Mr. Kelley headed an all-important population subcommittee for the
planning
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
report,
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
    was
    2.91 million.

  • 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,
    they
    will account for 20 percent.

  • In addition to projections for lower tax revenues, if the trends
    continue,
    the state is almost certain to lose one of its five seats in the U.S.
    House
    by 2010.

Mr. Oman, Iowa state officials and others stressed that the immigration
proposal is among several long-term proposals. Plans include developing
ways
to keep more graduating Iowans from leaving the state, diversifying the
state's still-heavily agricultural economy with an eye to becoming more
of a
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
look
at the reality and find ways to change that," said Mr. Oman, who is a
Republican, indicating the initiative's bipartisan support. "We realized
that
if we didn't change anything, we would not see the kind of growth needed
to
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
very
different place 10 years from now," Ms. Pederson said. "We won't be the
same
in 10 years, no matter what."

Mr. Oman noted that Iowa has already begun to change. And immigrants are
part
of that change.

He mentioned, for example, that in the 1980s, about 15,000 Southeast
Asian
refugees were successfully resettled in the state. More recently, people
fleeing conflicts in places such as Bosnia and the Sudan have found
their way
to Iowa.

And so have Hispanic immigrants.

Drawn by the lure of plentiful jobs, better pay and a good environment
to
raise their families, more Hispanics are making Iowa their home.

Officially, the U.S. census reported that about 32,000 Hispanics were
living
in Iowa in 1990, when the state's total population was 2.78 million. A
1998
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
Hispanic
children enrolled in schools throughout the state, Ms. Salinas Newby
said
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
said.
"And from what I see, these 'welcome centers' seem to be geared more to
the
higher-skilled immigrants, not those who are low-skilled but still
needed."



'Many challenges'

Similar concerns were voiced by Sandra Snchez, director of the
Immigrant
Rights Project of the American Friends Service Committee in Iowa.

"In general, this proposal is a very positive vision. It is important
that
immigrant contributions be recognized," Ms. Snchez said. "But I believe
the
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
of
any planning groups.

And, she noted, there have already been encounters between immigrants
and
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
by
the plants.

"People are now more sensitive to what having a meatpacking plant in
their
community means," Ms. Snchez said. "They now know, for example, that
having
a plant like this move into your community does not necessarily mean
that all
the jobs are going to local people."

This year, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an
organization
based in Washington that favors greater immigration restrictions,
sponsored
advertisements in Iowa that featured what it called the negative impact
of
immigration on towns such as Storm Lake, a town of about 9,000 people in
the
northwest part of the state.

Dan Stein, executive director of the federation, said Storm Lake is a
perfect
example of what can happen when a big meatpacking plant opens in a
community
to import cheap labor.

Among the ills blamed on the plant and its immigrant hires were
increased
crime and economic decline.

After the ads ran, many town residents, including the mayor, were
outraged,
saying some of the scenes portrayed were not even photographed in their
town.

But Mr. Stein claims his organization has strong support.

"We studied Iowa pretty closely when we were doing that ad campaign, and
our
poll found that 62 percent of overall voters favored greater
[immigration]
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
backs of
low-wage immigrant labor," Mr. Stein said.

But Iowa officials who have been working on the plan reject the notion
that
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
the
state into a leader in biotechnology and improve its Internet and
telecommunication industries means that high-tech, highly skilled
workers
would definitely be needed.

Indeed, the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, recently traveled to
Washington
to lobby for legislation that would increase the number of high-tech
H1-B
visas allowed each year.

"We're talking about going after populations at all different income
levels
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
has
yet to be decided.



Exemptions from quotas

Generally, the council's draft report, expected to be finalized and sent
to
the governor by Labor Day, notes that by becoming an immigration
enterprise
zone, Iowa could seek exemptions from federal immigration quotas.

It urged the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to promptly
process
immigrants relocating to Iowa. It also recommended looking at state laws
and
regulations to ensure they too provide a welcome to new residents,
including
making sure fair housing and wages rules are enforced.

The planning council also urged providing the necessary "social and
political
infrastructure to meet the needs of new populations" in communities
where new
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
English
and Spanish: "Wow! Finally, it's about time."

"That's the kind of thing I have been looking for," said Mr. Ochoa, a
native
of Guatemala who moved to Iowa about five years ago to work for a
meatpacking
plant. "The kinds of obstacles and barriers we face, no one can even
imagine."

Mr. Ochoa lives in the small town of Perry, population about 7,000,
northwest
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
that
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
Island.

"When I first got here, I saw a lot of racism. In many respects, people
still
see us as if we're from another planet or something," he said. "But the
thing
is, we have certain responsibilities we too need to learn and exercise
in
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
could
make itself more welcoming for immigrants such as him. First, he said,
the
state should stop requiring legal immigration status for people trying
to
obtain a driver's license.

"There are some states where one can go to the driver's license bureau
and
get one by presenting papers such as a Mexican passport," he said. "But
here,
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
she
arrived to study at Iowa State University.

Ms. Zhou, 30, recently graduated with a master's degree in civil
engineering.
She works for a company under contract for the state department of
transportation and is designing a bridge on Interstate 235 in Des
Moines.

Her biggest concern is that she can only extend the H1-B visa under
which she
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
work
visa may expire before her green card is issued.

"Also, in Iowa, because there are not many immigrants, most employers
don't
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
said.

This is especially important, she said, because so many immigrants find
Iowa
such a great place to live.

Just ask Antonio Zarete, 52, who has lived in the United States for
almost 30
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
for my
family."

He works cleaning office buildings.

"This is a state where it never even crossed my mind that I would want
to
live here," said the native of the Mexican state of Michoacn. "One day,
like
everybody else, I would like to return home, but for right now, I'm very
comfortable here."

Sonia Sandoval, 40, says there is nothing difficult about living in
Iowa, not
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
have
a job and are healthy, nothing else really matters," she said.

AMP Section Name:CorpWatch