Background

According to the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, refugees settled in Iowa came from Sudan, Ivory Coast, Somalia and other African nations, Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, Iraq, Haiti, Cuba and Bosnia. Between 1975 and 1999, nearly 22,000 refugees were settled in Iowa. Between 1997 and 2002 alone, 7,441 refugees were settled in Iowa with the most (5,383) coming from the former Yugoslavia.

In the past five years, the Archdiocese assisted in the resettlement of thirteen refugee families from Sudan and Bosnia. While these refugee numbers are relatively low, most of our efforts were directed to welcoming the newcomers from Mexico and Central America.

Iowa’s population grew between 1990 and 2000 by 5.4% to nearly 2.9 million. Importantly, about two-thirds of this growth was due to immigration, particularly by the arrival of Latino newcomers. In the 1990’s the Latino population grew by 153% to 83,000. Latinos are now the state’s largest minority population, outnumbering African Americans by more than 20,000.

Mexican immigration to the United States has occurred for several generations, but the permanent settling of Mexican immigrants in Iowa is a recent phenomenon. Extremely low wages, poor working conditions and lack of economic opportunities in Mexico are all reasons Mexicans migrate to the United States. The expansion of meatpacking facilities all over Iowa since the late 1980s has attracted Mexican immigrant wage laborers. In 2000, 70% of the production workers at the Swift and Company plant in Marshalltown were Latinos. The low wages and poor working conditions by American worker standards are a blessing for sojourners who have left far worse conditions. Jobs in the U.S. are not without risks however. Many are young men, some married and some single, who work long and hard for the $8.00 an hour labor with minimal benefits. The manual labor causes health problems that are not covered by company health insurance, for the most part.

The Hispanic workers send their wages home to support families in Mexico. About three-fourths of the new Latino immigrants come from the Mexican states of Michoacan, Jalisco, Gaunajuato, San Luis Potosi and Guerrero. In Marshalltown, for example, more than 3,000 Latino newcomers are also residents of Villachuato, Michoacan. In Postville, many are from El Barril, San Luis Potosi.

To welcome these newcomers, the Archdiocese has opened a Hispanic Ministries outreach program with offices in six cities and towns throughout the Archdiocese: Marshalltown, Hampton, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Postville and Dubuque. We are also extending outreach to other towns where Hispanics are living such as in New Hampton, Tama, Cascade, New Vienna, Charles City, Chelsea, Clarion, Ackley, Britt, Blairstown and Belmond and other areas outside of Dubuque. A Vicar of Hispanic Ministry and a Director were assigned to assist with clergy assignments and administrative support. Additionally, our first Hispanic seminarian was ordained to the Priesthood in 2003 and another will be ordained in 2004. Other priests who speak Spanish are assigned to the parishes where the majority of Hispanics reside and the Hispanic offices are managed by three Sisters and three lay people, who also speak Spanish, to provide a Christian welcome and outreach services. Mass is offered in Spanish by priests in the Archdiocese who speak the language. Hispanics who have families are offered catechesis and the sacraments. The outreach staff also provide whatever support and social services that may be needed. For example, we may assist in referring immigrants to medical, hospital and dental services, housing, schooling, transportation, assistance in filing and completing citizenship papers, and offering a welcoming with the local parishes.

Leadership development in the Hispanic community has been a priority with the Hispanic outreach offices. In Marshalltown, the Director assisted with the formation of a community organizing effort to build leadership skills, and today the group, Latinos en Accion, is in their second year of funding from the national and Archdiocesan Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

The Archdiocese created and supports a Spanish language institute for clergy and pastoral staff who work with the Hispanic communities. The clergy graduates are then assigned to a rotating schedule of offering mass in Spanish. On a given Sunday, Mass in Spanish is offered in about eight parishes and one parish has two Spanish Masses.

Catholic Charities has hired a Spanish speaking Counselor who provides individual, couple or family counseling throughout the Archdiocese, and the agency has expanded their immigration office to include paralegal services with plans to acquire accreditation from the Board of Immigration Appeals of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since 9/11, there are increasing social, economic and political pressures mounting that have influenced many Americans to distrust the immigrant. Fear of terrorist, compounded by the war in Iraq have contributed to American fear and distrust of “strangers”. For Iowans the fear seems to be manifest in the thought that immigrants will use up existing resources and cause an increase in the cost of support for community infrastructure, such as the cost of education, schools, roads, medical care, social security and welfare. This fear has contributed to an outcry from citizens to their U.S. and state legislative representative and laws have been changed restricting and, in some instances, eliminating support for the immigrant. We have seen a major reform of the country and state welfare systems and a major thrust to deport illegal or undocumented immigrants. There have been many deportation raids on factories and hundreds and probably thousands of immigrants have been deported to Mexico and often without their families.

The Hispanic Ministries staff also work to protect immigrant rights and to insure that raids are conducted fairly and humanly, which is often not the case. The staff also work to assist immigrants in applying for their citizenship and in learning the culture and English language in order to improve and protect their lives and the lives of their families. A major focus for the Hispanic Ministry staff, however, is to welcome them into our Christian communities and inculcate them into the liturgical and sacramental life of the parish.

The Social Concerns committee of the Iowa Catholic Conference also has created a subcommittee on immigration to help inform parishioners and the Hispanic community about issues and laws affecting the Hispanic community and advocating in their behalf to insure equal protection under the law.