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A conversation with author and professor Matt Walsh on Iowa’s refugee resettlement


This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity

What were some of your main takeaways from writing the book “The Good Governor:  Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa”?

I was just very fascinated with Iowa’s connection with the Tai Dam community and how there are more Tai Dam in Iowa than anywhere outside of Asia, and the fact that a governor got so involved in all of this when really he did not have to. It was also of interest because this is something for presidents, the State Department, ambassadors, but not the governor of a Midwestern state, and that was something that really surprised me. Iowa was the only state resettlement agency between 1975 and 2010. Every other state brought in refugees — some brought in more than Iowa, of course, but they were coming through the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, these are called voluntary agencies, and they’re all private, so the Iowa thing was kind of unique.

What did you understand about the public’s feelings at the time about Ray allowing refugees to resettle in Iowa?

It was very controversial, the Vietnam War, and in 1975 Ray agreed to bring in the first batch of refugees and then continue to help out throughout his governorship, and a lot of people wanted to be done with the Vietnam War. I knew of one Tai Dam woman whose mother worked in an old-age home, and a woman in the old-age home had a son who died in the Vietnam War, and she would mock the [Tai Dam] woman. People kind of associated an Asian face with the enemy. And this could even go back to the World War II era because I remember an elderly woman wrote in to the governor’s office complaining about him bringing in these refugees. So there’s some definite racism. There’s the pain of the Vietnam War. I know one serviceman brought in his U.S. flag and returned it to the governor’s office because he was so upset that refugees were being brought in. A lot of people thought these folks were going to steal jobs. The governor and his aides, they countered that pretty good. They would say, “Well, go look in the Des Moines Register, there’s over 1,000 jobs in the classifieds. Why don’t you apply to one of those jobs before these folks get here?”

What did Iowa do to help refugees resettle in Iowa?

Gov. Ray, he set up this refugee program — it all interrelates. It was cluster resettlement, working initially with one group ― it was going to be the Tai Dam. The state was going to work with the Tai Dam and Ray was going to push sponsorship, and an individual sponsor was necessary. He and others criticized the Catholic Church. Maybe the Catholic Church would bring in a refugee family and maybe the parish was listed as the sponsor or the local refugee resettlement agency office, and Ray did not like that. He wanted individual sponsors, because he wanted these people to be put to work. Being a good sponsor tied into the idea of work first. 

There were stories of refugees coming to the United States and immediately just going on welfare, and Ray saw it like, that is not going to work. He did not want these people to get on the welfare track. And of course, if they’re all on welfare, it’s going to be costly, the program that he’s setting up is going to be criticized. To go along with the sponsors finding these folks work, he appointed Colleen Shearer as the head of his refugee resettlement program, and she ran Jobs Service of Iowa, and all the Jobs Service of Iowa offices were involved in resettlement and kind of placing refugees into employment. They were very active in getting these folks jobs.

What were Gov. Ray’s motivations in this effort?

In the sources and the official communications he said afterward, it was several factors, but Christian ethics. You’ve got to do the right thing; you don’t turn your back on people who are going to potentially die. He felt like it was the right thing to do, and this gets a lot of churches involved. I’ll also say it was ecumenical, so the Jewish community, they also got involved in this, synagogues and churches. Also, it was kind of seen as patriotism in a way, doing your part. He wanted Iowa to do its part. The United States had lost a war in Vietnam and we had allies who helped us as soldiers, as ties to U.S. businesses, people involved in the government, police officials of South Vietnam, and we can’t just turn our backs on these people, these are former allies. It’s the right thing to do to bring them to the United States, and Iowa needs to do its fair share. 

Then another point. It’s the president who’s asking. President Gerald Ford is asking for help, and he’s a Republican, Ray’s a Republican and Midwestern guys. Obviously, Iowa’s [caucus was] the first in the nation. Ray had met presidential candidates and driven Ford around, and Ford was seen as a good president. He wasn’t dismissive of governors as maybe Nixon was, and [Ray] wanted to help Ford out, and you know what, maybe that could help Ray in the future.

What was the business community’s perspective on hiring the refugees who settled in Iowa?

Something that was fascinating to me is Iowa and the governor’s office really put in a lot of work to get these Asian refugees jobs. They would kind of sell this to the business community. “These people are hardworking. They are entrepreneurial. They’re family-oriented. They’re obedient. They will make great employees, you need to hire them.” Being intelligent is kind of called the model-minority, so Asian Americans are seen as the model-minority because through hard work and dedication they can overcome racism and they can live the American dream. 

Maybe they didn’t plan for this, but the governor’s office and this refugee program alienated African Americans, because they had very high unemployment in Des Moines and the Black community at this time and they resented Gov. Ray and Shearer getting these folks jobs and placing so much energy in doing it. It felt like “Hey, you know, why aren’t you helping us out? We are Americans. We’ve been here for generations. Maybe we came here as enslaved people. So you’re helping out these folks, but you’re not helping out us.” 

There were fights in the schools and in the community between Blacks and Asians, and I think there was some jealousy. People in the Black community maybe saw refugees as getting preferential treatment.

What role did the governor’s effort play in encouraging businesses to hire refugees?

There would have been some interest, but the governor’s office was able to put it all together and make things go smoother. Part of that is that cluster resettlement, so they could have one Tai Dam who speaks English go work with 20 other people at a food processing plant, and that one person can serve as an interpreter if the boss has something to say. 

What motivated businesses to hire refugees at the time?

It seemed to me in this period that I studied, like mid-’70s and early ’80s, businesses were hiring refugees to help out Gov. Ray, and also it’s because these folks were doing jobs nobody wanted. They were very low-paying, they had a hard time keeping folks. But if you’re in food processing at IBP or Tyson and you just work hard, and you might not have to know much English, and you stay there, then they were very grateful for that. I think it could have been more of a need for cheap labor for people to do jobs that not a lot of other folks wanted to do. 

And then these Asian folks were a little bit different in that they had extended family, so it’s not just mom and dad and a couple of kids. It could be mom, dad, a couple of kids, an aunt, an uncle and three cousins all living together in one house and they’re able to pull all those minimum-wage incomes and try to scratch together for survival a little bit better than maybe a native Iowan who would work that job for a month or two and then maybe quit.

Did refugees tend to stay in these roles their whole careers? 

Some of them would, particularly the first generation who came, maybe they stayed in more of those working-class jobs. There could be some angst there because the refugee program in Iowa was all about putting these folks to work and it was like, learn English on your own time. If you want to do that, that’s fine. They created a volunteer tutor program to help these folks work, but the governor’s office was not interested in people going on welfare and going to college, or just taking time to learn English. It was like, you’re going to work, and English and higher education can come later. 

The early first generation that came here might have had to stay in those working-class jobs, but the second and third generation are doing more diverse things as far as professional jobs. The first 130,000 refugees, who came from Vietnam and the Tai Dam, a lot of them were skilled. There are stories of people who were bank presidents working in Vietnam, and they come to the United States, and they are a janitor at a bank. There was a big-time general who became a chauffeur. So there is this loss in status that happened, and you’ve got to swallow your pride and get to work. That did happen.


Sarah Bogaards

Sarah Bogaards is a staff writer at Business Record. She covers innovation & technology, HR & education.

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