Response To Refugees In Iowa Has Changed In 40 Years

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Seeing this Iowa Historical Society photo in an Iowa newspaper that published a Clare McCarthy IowaWatch story prompted Jeanne Buck Coburn to contact McCarthy. The picture shows Vietnamese refugees gathered in Des Moines in the 1970s with Coburn's parents, Eleanor and Wayne Buck of rural Melbourne, Iowa, who helped the refugees resettle in the state.

Editor’s note 11/18/19: This story was written in August 2015 before the Syrian refugee crisis. Strong with its detail on Iowa’s history, it is about an influx of Burmese refugees to Iowa. An update on the Syrian crisis was added to the story.

The 1975 fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War led to the evacuation of all American military and civilians from the city, plus approximately 125,000 Vietnamese refugees who resettled in the United States.


Several years later, a second wave of refugees termed “the boat people” headed for the United States, making their tedious way across the sea in rickety boats packed with up to 200 people from the former South Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries. Many perished at sea due to starvation, pirate attacks, or drowning, but more than 100,000 refugees made it to the United States in 1979.

Vietnamese refugees gather in Des Moines in 1975 with Iowans who helped them resettle in the state. Iowa was a lead state taking Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. Photo from the Iowa Refugee Service Center

Vietnamese refugees gather in Des Moines in 1975 with Iowans who helped them resettle in the state. Iowa was a lead state taking Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

Iowa was the first state to offer resettlement assistance to refugees in 1975 and continued to do so in 1979. In July 1975, former Gov. Robert Ray responded to a personal request from President Gerald Ford to offer resettlement to refugees from southeast Asia. He established the Governor’s Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement, which was expanded later to serve all refugees in Iowa and renamed the Iowa Refugee Service Center.

But refugee assistance in Iowa is not the same as it was 40 years ago.

State refugee services still exist but as part of the Iowa Department of Human Services and has been renamed the Bureau of Refugee Services.

Federal grants that once supported assistance programs no longer exist. Refugees speaking different dialects even in the same languages are adding pressure to state agencies whose workers are trying to help the refugees. And Iowans helping refugees from other countries say the state – and its governor – are not doing enough.

“There is always room to improve,” said Amy Doyle, a lawyer who works with a refugee resettlement agency in Des Moines. “It’s really a matter of providing state funding for the organizations (that assist refugees).”

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said more funding is needed, but from the federal government. “Unfortunately, these are complicated issues and there is not really an easy answer to it,” he said.


Iowa was the first state to open its arms to the Tai Dam, an ethnic group of Vietnam and Laos who wished to resettle as a group in the United States, and it was also the first and only state to have a government resettlement agency. Through the years Ray obtained a reputation as a humanitarian leader of refugee resettlement in Iowa.

EDITOR’S UPDATE 11/18/15: Gov. Terry Branstad on Nov. 17, 2015, ordered all state agencies to halt work on Syrian refugee resettlements immediately, saying the move was necessary for the safety of Iowans after terrorist attacks in Paris. “We have welcomed refugees from around the world into Iowa. We must continue to have compassion for others but we must also maintain the safety of Iowans and the security of our state,” he said in a prepared statement. “Until a thorough and thoughtful review is conducted by the intelligence community and the safety of Iowans can be assured, the federal government should not resettle any Syrian refugees in Iowa.”

Jeremy Rosen, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said later in the day that the decision was both morally and legally wrong and that Syrian refugees are fleeing terrorism in their home country. “Politicians should not falsely link the tragedy in Paris with the settlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. Iowans are welcoming people who understand our moral obligation to help people in need,” Rosen said in a prepared statement. “…In addition the governor has no authority over refugee resettlement; only the president or other federal officials can make a decision of this nature. We call on Gov. Branstad to reconsider this rash decision, and to stop engaging in fear-mongering.” END UPDATE.


An influx of refugees from Burma has come into Iowa since 2007. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Iowa welcomed 408 Burmese refugees in 2014 alone, not including the vast majority of secondary immigrants coming into the state.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in a July 7, 2015, interview with IowaWatch reporters Clare McCarthy and Makayla Tendall.

Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in a July 7, 2015, interview with IowaWatch reporters Clare McCarthy and Makayla Tendall. During this interview Branstad discussed his views on handling an influx of Burmese refugees.

Branstad said Iowa has limited resources for helping the Burmese refugees. The federal government cuts mean Iowa needs to turn to partnerships with local churches and volunteer social service agencies, Branstad said in an IowaWatch interview last month.

“Can we partner with the faith community and … other people we can partner with?” Branstad said. “What I think we need to look at is a partnership, and I think the state can partner with some of the groups like the religious community as well as some of the nonprofits to do this.”

Social service providers and other experts on immigration issues in Iowa said the state must do more. Mark Grey, a University of Northern Iowa professor of anthropology and director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, said that includes providing more resources for hospitals, school districts and English as a Second Language education.

Branstad recently vetoed legislation that would grant funding for a small start-up refugee aid program in Polk County. Branstad told reporters after the veto the proposal was too specific for one part of Iowa and that a statewide solution is needed.

Social service providers and health care agencies said in IowaWatch interviews they are being overwhelmed by the demand for services these refugees are bringing with them to Iowa.

Roughly 6,000 to 7,000 refugees from Burma have settled in Iowa since 2009. According to the Iowa Department of Human Services, the Burmese became the largest group of refugees being resettled in Iowa by the Bureau of Refugee Services by the end of 2007.

The influx of refugees is reminiscent of the 1970s. But differences exist.

Refugees settled directly in Iowa when they arrive in the United States typically receive 90 days of core services from federal resettlement agencies, which provide assistance settling into housing, obtaining a Social Security card, and signing up for state aid.

The U.S. Department of State’s Refugee Admissions Reception and Placement Program is responsible for placing refugees with an affiliated office and for providing these initial services, after which they are expected to be self-sufficient.

Until 1991, federal programs gave refugees about 36 months to become self-sustaining with the use of financial assistance. Now, refugees are provided only eight months of financial assistance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement in addition to the 90 days of direct social assistance from the Reception and Placement Program.

One particular problem exists for the Burmese entering Iowa because the majority coming into the state are secondary immigrants. Secondary immigrants, who originally resettle in one state but then move to another, lose what federal benefits they had when they resettle in a different state.

States have the option of establishing a Refugee Cash Assistance program that is a public/private partnership between the state and local resettlement agencies.

“At the federal level, we need to look at the whole immigrant issue and how it is being dealt with and why the changes have been made and if there are changes that can be made in that program serving refugees so that we can better serve their needs,” Branstad said.


Another problem is giving refugees access to simple information and state services that exist, said Amy Doyle, with EMBARC, or the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Research Center.

“I mean they’re so grateful to have an apartment, but they don’t know how to use the oven, they don’t know how to use the stove, they don’t know how to get to the doctor’s office,” Doyle said. “These are people who, if we want them to thrive and succeed, we have to give them more than just a life preserver when they get here.”

A Vietnamese boy eating a cracker in Des Moines in 1975.

State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City

A Vietnamese boy eating a cracker in Des Moines in 1975.

According to a Refugee Community Plan by the Des Moines Foundation, “Iowa’s refugee resettlement program has transformed greatly in the past four decades.” Increasing secondary migration, decreased federal funding, and higher need from refugees has led to more limited services and less refugee assistance, the report said.

Those pushing for Iowa to do more for Burmese coming into the state point to Iowa’s history of welcoming refugees.

Ray’s support and funding of refugee resettlement helped establish Iowa as a place that welcomes and assists refugees in need. While Branstad gave credit to Ray, he said, “You have to deal with the situation as it exists.”

“What they did in the 1970s was successful—and many of the immigrants of that era have successfully made the transition,” Branstad said. “I think we need to analyze what the circumstances are today and what we can do and what other partners might be able to do.”


Most refugees from Burma have limited English-speaking capabilities and hardly can understand the language, reporter Lee Rood wrote in a series of Des Moines Register reports this year. Many are sinking into depression due to acculturation stress and cultural bereavement, Rood’s reports said.

EMBARC assists refugees with accessing the proper resources available to them, offering tutoring programs, interpreters and other help refugees need. A refugee-run nonprofit organization, EMBARC is based in Des Moines, where the largest population of refugees in Iowa has resettled for jobs in meatpacking and manufacturing. Over the past several years, an influx of refugees from Burma are settling in smaller meatpacking towns like Columbus Junction, Marshalltown and Waterloo.

EMBARC has an office in Marshalltown and is in the process of starting one in Waterloo. Doyle said EMBARC is attempting to expand but cannot provide all the services necessary for every refugee coming into Iowa.

Doyle said Iowa is an English-only state that does not translate resource material immigrants might need to other languages. This can become problematic for organizations trying to help refugees contact state agencies, she said.

Many refugees arrive in the United States with minimal training in English and have spent much of their lives—some of them, their whole lives—in refugee camps, where most have never experienced anything close to a “normal life with normal services,” Doyle said.

Branstad said the state should encourage refugees, both children and adults alike, to learn the English language efficiently. “We need to look at every way we can try to reach out to the parents and the families,” he said.

“That’s what you need to be able to succeed in the country is to be able to communicate in the English language,” the governor said.

Branstad said the refugees need mentors who can help them adapt to Iowa. “If they have a relative or even maybe it’s not a relative, just somebody from a local faith group that can act as a mentor, that can make all the difference in the world. That can help them make the adjustment and be successful,” he said.

Other organizations exist to help refugees, including Lutheran Services in Iowa and the Iowa International Center. Almost all refugee assistance programs are nonprofit and volunteer-based. Doyle said that, while many are refugee-run, they cannot reach out to all struggling refugees, and many don’t know they exist.


Michele Devlin, professor of health promotion at the University of Northern Iowa, said many refugees are not gaining access to proper health care in Iowa because of not only language barriers, but also cultural barriers.

They come into the United States with different beliefs, attitudes and practices about health but also problems getting transportation and understanding common linguistics, said Devlin, who is director of the Iowa Center on Health Disparities. Iowa does not have interpreters for all of the dialects that exist in some languages. Many companies rely on tele-interpretation, which is not always effective, she said.

Michele Devlin, professor of health promotion, University of Northern Iowa, and director of the Iowa Center on Health Disparities.

Michele Devlin, professor of health promotion, University of Northern Iowa, and director of the Iowa Center on Health Disparities.

Devlin said a small, rural state like Iowa does not have the same resources larger places have. Cities like New York and Los Angeles have dealt with cultural diversity much longer than cities in Iowa, which are being overwhelmed with a large number of lower income, culturally diverse refugees and immigrants, Devlin said.

Devlin’s main concern about providing health care is that most state agencies struggle with dozens of different cultures and languages each day. Added to that, Iowa is a medically underserved health provider and specialists often do not seek high-paying work in the rural Midwest, she said.

Branstad said The Free Clinics of Iowa is an option for refugees seeking medical services. He also said that he believes refugees coming into Iowa can still succeed, despite the lack of resources.

This answer might not be enough for refugee advocates and social support agencies. Recent reports show that some Iowans expect more empathy from Branstad.

“I think this is a golden opportunity for Branstad,” Amy Doyle of EMBARC said. “I mean everyone refers to Robert Ray with a general tone of amazement and respect. He really did open these big doors and help the entire Tai Dam. That’s a big deal.”

“Governor Branstad could be known for the exact same thing with the Burmese population. And going forward, if Iowa continues to accept refugees from other places, this is a great opportunity for him, I think. So hopefully he is open to that.”

This IowaWatch story was published by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) and Des Moines Register under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it, go to this link.