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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Spring 2003, Vol. 30 No. 1

Faith and Public Education: Immigrants, Iowa, and the Biblical Mandate to "Welcome the Stranger"

Mark A. Grey and Anne C. Woodrick

The foreign-born population in the United States grew dramatically between 1990 and 2000. In the 2000 Census, 31.1 million people, or 11.1% of the nationís population, were born outside the United States. This represents the highest percentage of foreign-born residents since 1930 and a 57% growth rate from 1990. Indeed, immigration accounted for a full third of the nationís population growth between 1990 and 2000. More than half of the foreign-born population in the United States in 2000 came from Latin America.

Similar trends are found in Iowa. Iowa remains overwhelmingly white, but many Iowa communities are experiencing rapid growth in Latino and other immigrant populations. The Latino population alone grew by 153% between 1990 and 2000, with individual communities experiencing Latino growth rates over 1000%. Other immigrants arrive from Southeast Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Without immigrants, many Iowa communities would have lost population in the 1990s.

Immigrants also play a critical role in Iowaís long-term economic and social health. Demographic trends point to an aging, smaller population, with declining birthrates, out-migration of the young, and a shrinking workforce. Immigrants are already filling job vacancies in many communities and are projected to become even more important in the future. In addition to a growing economic role, immigrant newcomers are also revitalizing housing markets, schools, churches, and social institutions.

Rapid growth in immigrant and refugee populations provides opportunities, but it also presents challenges. Many Iowa communities that were predominately white and English-speaking became multiethnic and multilingual in a few short years. These communities also tend to experience high rates of transience which disrupt the ability of newcomers and established residents to become "neighbors." There are often severe challenges to schools, health care providers, housing authorities, law enforcement officials, and community leaders. The social fabric of many communities has been challenged: the old ways of doing things donít always work any more. For many established residents, this is a difficult and even frightening time.

Of course, matters of faith become involved when differences emerge in styles of worship, how people define their relationship with God, and the role of miracles and other manifestations of divine intervention in daily life. In some towns, there are even debates about the definition of "Christian" and if many immigrants really are Christians. One Spanish-speaking Baptist pastor even told his local Rotary Club that many Latino newcomers are not Christians because they are Catholic. One elderly parishioner we know of asked her pastor when the Mexican Catholics attending her church were "going to become Christians." In some communities, particularly aggressive Pentecostal recruiters even pay potential immigrant converts for attending church and bringing their children with them.

For most Christian Iowans, the issue is not whether newcomers are Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Rather, they ask questions like, "why did they come here?" and "what are we supposed to do with them?" Language, class, and culture form formidable barriers to social interaction between established residents and immigrant newcomers. Ethnicity or race also plays a critical role, especially when newcomers donít look like predominately white Iowans. Throw in the mix all kinds of stereotypes about newcomers and how they came here. There are persistent rumors, for example, that billboards in rural Mexico advertise jobs in Iowa, or that refugees receive special privileges and even luxury cars when they arrive in the US.

The New Iowans Program at the University of Northern Iowa was established to help communities, employers and others work through this difficult transition. We emphasize the rewards of the new immigration, but readily acknowledge the challenges as well. Many communities have embraced the newcomers. Others are still wishing they would go away. To some leaders, immigrants have revitalized their communities and local economies. Others openly admit that if they had a choice between the newcomers or the continued decline of their towns, they would choose decline.

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