- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2000


When Djalal Arbabha decided to come to America five years ago, he chose to settle in southeast Iowa not because he loved the rural rhythms of life or the rolling cornfields, but because his brother and sister already lived here.

They, too, had decided to leave their homeland of Iran in search of a better life.

Now, however, both his siblings have left the state for better jobs in Colorado and Florida. Mr. Arbabha, a Des Moines County public defender, reluctantly admits that he, too, would leave if he could find a better-paying job.

"I probably would move to California," he said. "There are more … immigrants of Iranian descent. Iranian restaurants, Iranian shops I would feel more at ease."

Mr. Arbabha's story is a cautionary tale for Iowa and other Midwest states that are looking to immigration as one way to check waning populations and a declining work force. History has shown that it is easier for states like Iowa to attract newcomers than it is to keep them.

Yet, even as people like Mr. Arbabha pack up and leave for places with more diverse populations, Iowa is continuing to seek out more immigrants. The state's governor, Democrat Tom Vilsack, has gone so far as to propose that the federal government suspend its immigration restrictions in the state.

The campaign is upsetting some locals who say the state should concentrate on improving conditions for those already here, rather than recruiting outsiders who will just pick up and leave.

"The idea that immigrants are somehow different from the rest of us is overblown," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "If winters cause people who are fifth-generation Iowans to leave, don't you think the same winter is going to cause somebody from a tropical country to think about leaving, too?"

It's not impossible to promote settlements for immigrants away from where they would have occurred more naturally, but it's rarely successfully done.

"They may stay long enough to take advantage of whatever benefits are being offered," Mr. Krikorian said, "and some of them will put down enough roots and like it enough that they will stay around, but the percentages just aren't that good."

The historical evidence seems to support this view. Studies of Asian refugees who were resettled across America in the 1970s after the Vietnam War show that, generally, they did not stay where they were originally planted.

"The settlement programs were designed to spread them out," said June Marie Nogle, a secondary migration specialist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "And yet they ended up re-forming groups in California based on nationality."

Immigrants may be less likely to remain in states like Iowa, which is about 96 percent white despite immigration increases over the past 10 years. Hispanics willing to take low-paying, dangerous jobs at meatpacking plants account for most of those increases.

Mr. Arbabha, for instance, has lived in Burlington, a town of about 27,000 on the banks of the Mississippi River, for five years. But he says he still picks up strange vibes from people because of his dark features.

"It's quite possible people here have never seen somebody with my ethnic background, so they look up and look at you," Mr. Arbabha said. "I've noticed that, and it's still uncomfortable."

There is only one black and no other minorities in the 150-mem-

ber Iowa General Assembly. Proposals to boost immigration have drawn considerable skepticism from Iowans who, struggling not to appear racist, point to the increased public costs of educating and caring for large influxes of poor, non-English-speaking people.

The unprecedented idea of an "immigration enterprise zone" without federal restrictions, which would likely require an act of Congress, has drawn fire from national immigration experts, as well as from Iowans themselves.

"What Governor Tom Vilsack is suggesting is the abolition of America's borders, pure and simple," Mr. Krikorian said. "There is no such thing as an immigration policy for Iowa that can be different in any way for the other 49 states."

Others say the governor's proposals ignore the root of the population problem. "It seems to me we ought to be raising the pay in Iowa first and get all of our residents with good pay and benefits," said Tom Courtney, a United Auto Workers spokesman and president of the Burlington school board.

Mr. Courtney, a Democrat and usually a strong supporter of Mr. Vilsack, notes that Iowa workers rank among the lowest-paid in the country. "We ought to make sure that all those folks are being taken care of before we ask for more people in this state," he said.

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