Although it’s a long drive on I-80 between Cedar Rapids and Council Bluffs, our regional economies face many of the same challenges and opportunities.
Iowans are working and the unemployment rate is low, at around 3% in both of our regions. However, from catering and hospitality to technology and construction, our companies are struggling to find talent. And those challenges threaten to get worse as Iowa’s workforce ages and our population stagnates.
One of the ways to fill these essential jobs and strengthen Iowa’s economic future is to welcome refugees.
Iowa has a rich tradition of welcoming strangers and helping refugees resettle, adapt and thrive in our state. In the past year alone, Iowans have welcomed allies fleeing Afghanistan. We open our doors to Ukrainian families seeking protection from Russian invasion. Business leaders, including some of our members, have joined faith communities, veterans, universities, and ordinary citizens to help our new neighbors get their lives back to a safe start.
Such was the case at Council Bluffs, where our region’s Chamber of Commerce hosted a bi-monthly meeting with other stakeholders to discuss how best to help Afghan refugees transition to our region. And in Cedar Rapids, health care providers, nonprofits, school representatives and legislators meet monthly through the Immigrant Concerns group to share resources and best practices for creating accessible services. to newcomers to our region.
This renewed energy for refugee resettlement comes at a critical time. Already, refugees in Iowa are bolstering the state’s economy, paying at least $219 million in taxes a year and contributing $628 million in purchasing power. Refugee and immigrant-owned businesses contribute millions more to the state’s economy each year and employ thousands of Iowans.
These economic contributions are increasingly important given our demographics – in 2020, 40% of Iowa’s population growth came from immigrants and refugees. This diverse workforce not only helps offset our aging population, but also helps reduce incentives for businesses to move their operations elsewhere or overseas.
Yet these fiscal and economic statistics, while important, do not provide a compelling rationale for why Iowa — and the country — should welcome refugees. Rather, the best evidence is found in the stories and successes of new Iowans like Fourtytwo Yet. Born in Sudan, Fourtytwo came to the United States as a refugee in 2013 after growing up in refugee camps in Kenya. After a first job at Tyson Foods, he dedicated himself to education and giving back to his new country, earning an associate’s degree from Iowa Central Community College and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Northern Iowa. He now works as a senior case manager for Lutheran Family Services in Council Bluffs, supporting newcomers to the area, and is also a supply specialist with the Iowa National Guard who deployed last year to the Kuwait and Qatar to help Afghan refugees.
Or take the story of Gracie, who came to Cedar Rapids as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her family and young daughters. After losing her husband in a tragic accident, Gracie had to learn a new language, a new culture and a new community on her own. Through her hard work, she made Iowa her home and learned English, became an American citizen, and earned her Certified Nursing Assistant license. Perhaps most admirably, she is now a DHS licensed child care provider through a program at the Catherine McAuley Center and supports her family while providing culturally appropriate child care to other members of the Congolese community in Iowa.
But there’s more we can and should be doing to ensure future success stories like Fourtytwo and Gracie. While President Biden has pledged to increase the number of refugees we welcome, we are on track to fall short this year. We ask the people of Iowa to help our country do more.
This fall, the Biden administration will annually determine the number of refugees the United States will resettle in the next fiscal year. Iowa’s elected state and local leaders are expected to join hundreds of bipartisan officials from across the United States in signing a letter calling on the president to rebuild an effective resettlement program.
Since welcoming refugees from the Vietnam War, Iowa has proudly been a national leader in welcoming families fleeing violence, persecution and war. Now is the time for our local and state elected officials to stay true to that legacy.
Drew Kamp is President and CEO of the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce. Doug Neumann is the executive director of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.