It's hard to be an Ellis Island amid cornfields

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. And 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 says. "There are more ... immigrants of Iranian descent. Iranian restaurants, Iranian shops - I would feel more at ease."

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 workforce. History has shown that it's easier for states like Iowa to attract newcomers than it is to keep them.

Yet even as people like Arbabha pack up and leave for places with more diverse populations, Iowa is continuing to seek out more immigrants - the governor 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 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," says 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?"

Without roots, they won't stay

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

"They may stay long enough to take advantage of whatever benefits are being offered," Mr. Krikorian says, "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 agree. 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," says 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 despite immigration increases over the past 10 years - mostly Hispanics willing to take low-paying, dangerous jobs at meatpacking plants - remains about 96 percent white.

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," Arbabha says. "I've noticed that, and it's still uncomfortable."

There is only one African-American and no other minorities represented in the 150-member Iowa legislature.

Population decline is also a problem for other Midwestern states, but Iowa is the only state to have launched such a major effort to recruit foreign immigrants.

The proposals 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 peoples.

And 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 [Gov. Tom Vilsack] is suggesting is the abolition of America's borders, pure and simple," Krikorian says. "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 that Governor Vilsack'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," says Tom Courtney, a United Auto Workers spokesman and president of the Burlington school board.

Mr. Courtney, a Democrat and usually a strong supporter of 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," Courtney says.

Looking at all the issues?

Experts agree that states need to think about all the issues involved in recruiting new immigrants.

"How are they going to tap into state benefit programs?" asks William Frey, at the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center. "How are they going to tap into social and medical facilities?"

Mr. Frey warns that states should be wary of pushing immigration "just to bring in some inexpensive labor."

Aware of the resistance to his proposals, Gov. Vilsack has called on Iowans to change the way they think of immigrants.

The stereotype, he says, is of someone who doesn't speak English, is in the US illegally, is unemployed and "probably has a relative somewhere down the line that's selling drugs."

That needs to change, Vilsack says.

Maybe so. But first, Krikorian says Iowa and other Midwest states need to address the heart of the problem - why people don't stay.

"For a state like Iowa," he says, "they need to consider why it is the natives are leaving ... and to what extent those factors are under their control, rather than to simply try to put a Band-Aid on the problem by importing more people from the outside."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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