Letter of Transmittal

Iowa Advisory Committee to
the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Members of the Commission
Mary Frances Berry, Chairperson
Cruz Reynoso, Vice Chairperson
Christopher Edley, Jr.
Yvonne Y. Lee
Elsie M. Meeks
Russell G. Redenbaugh
Abigail Thernstrom
Victoria Wilson

Les Jin,
Staff Director

The Iowa Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights submits this summary report, Race Relations and Des Moines’ New Immigrants, as part of its responsibility to advise the Commission on civil rights issues within the state.

The Advisory Committee invited a cross-section of community workers and government personnel involved in services for new immigrants to make presentations at a community forum held on April 21, 1999, in Des Moines. While many community leaders respect newcomers and recognize their roles in the local community, other residents are uncomfortable with them. Community feelings are mixed about the new workers because they do not simply arrive to work; they also bring their languages and distinct cultures with them.

A state official provided beneficial information on the right to a court interpreter for any party who does not understand English and is involved in a legal proceeding in Iowa. The Advisory Committee, however, notes that even after the Iowa State Legislature passed a law providing for the adoption of rules governing qualifications of interpreters, there are complaints that the law is not being implemented.

The Des Moines refugee population was described as substantial and as a group that is sometimes treated differently from the mainstream population by police and service providers. Refugees have been reluctant to make formal discrimination complaints because they fear retribution.

Community advocates in Des Moines are helping new immigrants adapt to American society. However, complex immigration laws and restrictive social services policies sometimes do not allow immigrants access to services. Conversely, refugees in Iowa enjoy a better status than economic immigrants. Because refugees are fleeing political or religious persecution, they are allowed entry to the United States if their application is sponsored by a U.S. citizen. Federal funds are available for refugee resettlement needs.

One reason given for the increased migration to Iowa is the low level of work skills and language skills required by employers. These new immigrants do difficult, necessary work for corporations but live in fear of apprehension by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). An Iowa anthropologist has called these workers a “shadow work force.” Further, the civil rights of these workers and families cannot be assured as long as negative stereotypes and their legal status deny them a full range of civil rights protection. Law enforcement and immigration officials told the Advisory Committee they are doing the best they can to enforce the laws with the resources available. The INS executes the mandate of the U.S. Congress, which accordingly favors enforcement of laws over the processing of applications for U.S. citizenship or residency.

The Iowa Advisory Committee hopes that the information in this report will be beneficial to Iowa residents who work with new immigrants and that it adds to the body of knowledge collected by the Commission at the national level.


Lenola Allen-Sommerville, Chairperson
Iowa Advisory Committee