As Iowans observe the death this week of former Gov. Robert Ray, some friends and associates are recalling the struggles behind his work bringing southeast Asian refugees to Iowa back in the 1970’s.
Thousands of refugees were brought to the state starting in 1975, and again later in the decade. Many were fleeing political repression.
“It was not without controversy for sure,” said former Chief of Staff David Oman. “There were many people who couldn’t figure out why we would have to do this, why should we do this.”
Oman says Ray reached out to the business community, church leaders, individual towns and cities, and the media to convince them the plan was good for the state. He said it was ultimately Ray’s moral leadership that won people over.
“Gov. Ray had been elected four times, in ’78 his fifth time, overwhelmingly,” Oman said. “Iowans got to know if he said something it was true and if he felt strongly and asked Iowans to help them they would give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“It took a lot of heavy lifting,” added Scott Raecker who directs the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University. “It was not popular.”
Oman agrees immigration remains a sensitive subject today.
“There may be more contrasts today than parallels with what’s occurring,” Oman said. “The era was different.”
Oman says unlike today, there was no debate back then about the legitimacy of the refugees.
“With the Tai Dam refugees, they were fighting Communists, North Vietnam won the war, they were at great peril,” Oman said. “I’m not going to comment on the scene today but I would say lessons that were learned then, hard-earned lessons, could be looked at again.”
The Asian community will play a special role Thursday in a ceremony at the statehouse where the former governor’s body will lie in state.