The Dallas County Supervisors cautiously followed the lead of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds when they agreed in mid-December to send a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State, expressing the county’s willingness to continue accepting refugees for resettlement. Reynolds had signaled the state’s willingness a week before in a letter of her own.
Anti-immigration is arguably the central plank in U.S. President Donald Trump’s MAGA platform. He has moved aggressively against illegal immigrants with his proposed border wall with Mexico, and his efforts to curb legal immigration have been similarly robust, from his Muslim travel bans to his referring to Haiti, El Salvador and a number of African nations as “shithole countries” during a Jan. 12, 2018, meeting with congressional leaders on the subject of immigration.
Trump has also sharply reduced the number of refugees allowed in the country. From an annual average of about 100,000 refugees resettled under the administration of President Barack Obama, Trump plans to admit a maximum of 18,000 refugees in the 2020 fiscal year, a reduction from the ceiling of 30,000 in 2019, of 22,000 in 2018 and 54,000 in 2017.
Trump’s 2020 ceiling represents the lowest annual number of refugees to be settled in the U.S. since 1980, when the refugee resettlement program began.
Some Iowans take pride in the nation’s refugee resettlement program. After all, it was Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray, a Des Moines Republican, who led the way in refugee resettlement in 1975, when he welcomed Tai Dam refugees from Vietnam to Iowa, and again in 1979, when Ray arranged the resettlement in Iowa of Hmong people from Cambodia and Laos.
Ray’s charity toward Southeast Asians was controversial and politically risky at the time. Some Iowans feared the newcomers would sharpen the competition for jobs, divert funds from needy native Iowans and lead to “race mixing,” according to author Matthew Walsh, who has written about this period.
The ad hoc efforts of Ray and other governors in the 1970s led Congress to pass the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, which regularized resettlement policies and procedures and remains the legal basis of the U.S. refugee program today.
But the world changed after 9/11. Robert Ray was succeeded in office in 1983 by another Republican, Terry E. Branstad, who was serving his sixth non-consecutive term as governor of Iowa in November 2015 when he declared that “the federal government should not resettle any Syrian refugees in Iowa.”
Branstad was reacting to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the ongoing European immigrant crisis, and he was joined by governors from 31 states — nearly all Republicans — in urging the exclusion of Syrian refugees from the U.S.
Immigration has always been the province of the federal government, and states did not have the legal authority to refuse refugees in 2015, but a September 2019 executive order signed by Trump gave state and local governments the right to reject refugees for the first time.
So far none has exercised that right of rejection. According to the U.S. State Department, 33 states had requested refugee-resettlement programs by Dec. 28, including 15 states governed by Republicans like Reynolds.
The governors praised Trump for strengthening the refugee screening process by adding “social media checks” and “using additional databases to deepen the vetting process.” They said that “President Obama refused to work with the states” in 2015 in order “to strengthen security checks for refugees entering America.”
Dallas County’s letter to Pompeo was first proposed to the supervisors Nov. 19, when representatives from Catholic Charities and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) attended the Tuesday meeting and explained the resettlement program in Iowa and the need for the county’s letter — a novelty for the supervisors, whose consent was never before deemed necessary by Uncle Sam.
“I’m supportive of the effort,” said Supervisor Brad Golightly. “I think I’d like to see what the state’s office does, and I would support that.”
Supervisor Kim Chapman was also agreeable, and Board Chair Mark Hanson said the county would happily follow suit with a consent letter once the governor acted.
“It sounds like we’re supportive and don’t really have an issue with the letter,” Hanson said, “but we want to make sure that the state moves first. So we’ve got an interest in participating, but we want to make sure that the state is, in fact, on board.”
USCRI Des Moines Director Carly Ross said preliminary discussions were held with Reynolds, and the governor “initially expressed a willingness to provide consent for refugees to be resettled in the state of Iowa, so our next task now is to meet with each county where we provide services.”
Ross answered the supervisors’ questions about refugees, who come to Iowa fleeing violence or persecution in their homelands. The U.S. accepted about one-half of 1 percent of the world’s 25 million refugees in recent years, she said, but the reduction from an average of 100,000 annual refugee admissions under Obama to 18,000 under Trump is a big cut.
“Once they do pass through all the screening process to come here,” Ross said, “then they work with an agency like ours to receive services and to facilitate their integration to the United States.”
She said some 500 to 1,000 refugees are expected to come to Iowa in 2020, with 96 percent of the newcomers settling in Polk County.
“I would say the majority these days are coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Ross said, “followed by refugees from Burma, Bhutan, a few from Afghanistan and Eritrea.”
Refugee families receive at least three months’ rental assistance and a living stipend and are helped to negotiate many common activities, such as school registration, medical visits, applying for a Social Security card and the like. Situating the newcomers in gainful employment is a top priority, Ross said.
“More than 90 percent of refugee families are employed and self-sufficient within six months of arrival,” she said. “We have a very high success rate. We’ve been doing this a long time so we have employers that literally call us up and say, ‘Hey, I need five workers next week. Do you have somebody?’ It’s a win-win situation for our employers and for our clients as well.”
One employer probably on Ross’ speed dial is the Tyson Fresh Meats factory near Perry, which is the largest employer of refugees in Dallas County. The company currently employs 1,368 workers at the Perry plant, and about 800 of the employees are refugees, with 400 each of Africans and Asians. Some nine languages are spoken among Tyson’s refugee workers, most of whom commute daily from Des Moines, but some are choosing both to work and live in Perry or the surrounding area.
“We are seeing a lot of families move into Dallas County now due to the high quality of the housing and schooling,” said Catholic Charities Resettlement Director Elsie Rotich. “Most of the refugees that we resettle, they want to be placed close to their family members, so that if more families are moving to Dallas County, then we will need to resettle them here.”
Immigrants have particular needs that are met by community school districts and other public and non-profit services. Lou Hoger, site director of the Perry Food Pantry, said about 100 Eritreans — about 15 six-member families — moved to Perry in recent months and need assistance from the food pantry. Hoger said Tyson Fresh Meats made a $1,200 donation to the pantry to help feed its working families in Perry.