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Iowa council hosts conversation on immigrants' and refugees’ role in public policy

Lyle Muller
Columbus Junction is one of four communities that talked about its efforts to elevate the experiences of Iowa immigrants and refugees on Wednesday.

The Iowa City Foreign Relations Council hosted a panel on Wednesday to discuss how communities can work to include immigrants and refugees in policy-making.

Community leaders from four diverse Iowa towns shared their experience with engaging residents. Columbus Junction, Storm Lake, Marshalltown and West Liberty have all seen an influx of immigrants in the last decades. With growing populations from different cultures, the towns have had to identify new resources to fill knowledge gaps for arrivals.

University of Minnesota Morris associate professor Cristina Ortiz, who researches immigrant communities in the Midwest, said it’s important for towns to look for resources beyond just translation for new arrivals.

“As policy-makers, we need to think about whether we are contextualizing these processes and institutional requirements in ways that make sense to people who do not have that contextual knowledge already,” Ortiz said.

“We’ve got to look at things not just from our perspective, but from the global perspective."
Caleb Knuston, city planner in Marshalltown

Former Marshalltown city planner Caleb Knutson said towns need to reconsider their public policies as the makeup of their community changes. In his own work with his community, he said he tried to ensure city standards still served all of the community.

“We’ve got to look at things not just from our perspective, but from the global perspective,” Knutson said. “A lot of times when there are design standards for a community, I always ask ‘Who are those design standards for? When were they written?’”

The town of West Liberty has integrated more dual language signage throughout the town to encourage immigrants and refugees. Council member Cara McFerrin said all too often, the task of translating between languages falls on immigrant children.

“We've been able to embrace it in that way, so that it isn't just the responsibility of one person or a young child to do the translation,” McFerrin said.

Kassidy Arena
IPR file
Many West Liberty residents recommend a stop at the Acapulco Mexican Bakery & Grocery. It's been in the city for years, although it's had different owners over that time.

Knutson said city leaders can’t expect immigrants and refugees to seek them out to tell them all of their needs. Rather, policymakers need to meet them where they are in the community.

But, many times there are obstacles to gaining trust within migrant communities. Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen said that the fear of deportation is palpable in his northwest Iowa community. He said it’s made it harder for community service officers to connect with the Lao and Spanish-speaking communities.

“The eyes and ears for them have gone underground now because they're afraid,” he said. “And it's because of this cynical, broken immigration system that nobody's doing a thing about.”

Natalie Krebs
IPR file
The Tyson Plant in Storm Lake has recruited many immigrants to its workforce over the years.

Panelists also cited lack of political representation as an obstacle to serving immigrant and refugee communities. West Liberty in eastern Iowa has the only majority-minority city council in the state. Knutson said he wants to see more towns with large immigrant populations follow suit.

“Making sure we have people on all levels, and I don't just say it's about city council,” he said. “It’s making sure that we have representation on the board of adjustment, planning and zoning commission, parks boards. That's how you get people involved.”

Ortiz said she wants to see more communities embrace bilingual programs and community ID’s – which help immigrants and refugees who may not have the documentation to obtain a state-issued identification.

“I hope more communities look at those examples and say, ‘What can we do to also make that happen in our community?’” she said.

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.