Report: Midwestern Metros are Now Part of New "Global Heartland"

June 16, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

Heartland Forward cover
Heartland Forward is an Arkansas-based think tank that advocates for policies that boost the economy in the region.

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A new report argues the Midwest is much more welcoming to certain types of immigrants than stereotypes -- or political rhetoric -- suggests.

Heartland Forward, an Arkansas-based think tank, says demographic shifts will soon turn the heartland, which the organization defines as the 20 states between the Rockies and the Appalachians, into a truly global place with a mix of cultures.

“Some might refer to it as a flyover country,” Heartland’s CEO Ross DeVol said, “but if it were a separate country it would be the third largest economy in the world.”

Much of that economic growth is driven by migration trends that are drawing people to medium cities that are manufacturing centers, as well as highly educated migrants moving to larger cities for tech jobs. Federal refugee resettlement programs play a key role in the shift, providing the groundwork for a “global heartland.”

Ross DeVol, CEO of Heartland Forward
Heartland Forward's CEO, Ross DeVol (Courtesy photo, Heartland Forward)

New migration may accelerate in the region soon, as the pandemic wanes and the Biden Administration begins to roll back restrictive Trump-era immigration policies that slowed most forms of immigration.

Housing affordability and access to high paying jobs may be driving some entrepreneurial immigrants away from the coasts, and instead to Midwestern metropolitan areas. During the 2010s, Des Moines saw a nearly 50% growth in the number of foreign-born people living there, followed by Louisville, Kentucky; Columbus, and Nashville.

Conversely, New York and Los Angeles saw far smaller rates below 10%, with Los Angeles showing a slight decline. Nebraska’s foreign born population increased this decade from 6.1% to 7.4%; Iowa had a similar rate of growth, with Missouri and Kansas growing half as fast.

“Despite the narrative that heartland communities haven’t been as welcoming,” DeVol said, “others have had very specific well intentioned strategies to try to bring new immigrants to their communities and try to aid in their overall population growth and economic growth.”

The report specifically notes Iowa and Nebraska as success stories for drawing new migrants of all kinds, now that nationalities and ethnic groups have established communities, moving in less of a culture shock.

Resettlement and community in The Good Life

Nebraska has been the new home for thousands of resettled refugees since the late 1970s. Since 2016, the number of asylum seekers admitted has been on the decline because of the Trump Administration’s restrictive policies. Now, there’s a severe backlog. No matter how it gets cleared, it’s likely many new refugees may end up in The Good Life.

Lutheran Family Services is an organization that helps resettle refugees in eastern Nebraska. Lincoln has been home to refugees following conflicts in Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria, and now that those communities are established, the city has become an attractive place for those seeking community here.

Emily Sutton, the assistant vice president of community services at Lutheran Family Services, said community groups that partner with her organization are key to a successful resettlement.

“The vast majority of people who are coming into this state have a connection to people living here or have heard that Nebraska is a good place to live and raise their families,” Sutton said.

As communities grow, they can sponsor new visas for others wishing to join them.

The politics of migration policy become more nuanced as they get closer to the local level. For instance, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said he would not allow unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border to be sheltered in Nebraska, but when it comes to established resettlement programs, cities are willing to help. Both Omaha and Lincoln have councils that help refugees resettle, and mayors Jean Stothert and Lerion Gaylor Baird have been advocates for resettlement.

“It’s a cultural aspect,” Sutton said. “No matter where you sit on the political spectrum we [Nebraskans] are a welcoming people.”

If actions speak louder than words, some refugees and their families seem to be exempt from anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is largely aimed at people who overstay on their visas or cross the border illegally.

As new arrivals decreased during the Trump Administration, Lutheran Family Services transitioned to providing more supportive services for people they have previously settled including English lessons, financial literacy and career services.

As reporting from Buzzfeed and the Los Angeles Times has shown, the Biden Administration is working toward streamlining the asylum backlog, with a concrete plan expected in the coming weeks. Many asylees waiting from Tijuana to Matamoros are from the Northern Triangle region of Central America, whose so-called migrant caravans garnered attention during the past two elections.

No matter what happens, Lutheran Family Services isn’t worried about a possible influx.

“We have the infrastructure and capacity to navigate the ebbs and flows of the arrival pipeline,” Sutton said.

Diverse Des Moines

Des Moines, and Iowa as a whole, painted a new picture for itself regarding refugees and immigrants when Gov. Robert Ray held office from the late 60s to the early 80s. Ray opened the state to refugees during the Vietnam War, a decision still very present in many refugees’ minds today.

Samantha Huynh is one of them. Her family moved from Vietnam to Laos to Thailand to Washington, Iowa and finally sought permanent refuge in Des Moines. Although she was just a young child at the time, she remembers the resettlement process as confusing and just a little bit scary. She spoke Tai Dam and not a word of English. She and her four siblings eventually picked up the new language by watching episodes of Sesame Street.

Her father started work at a corn factory and became a pastor. Her mother worked as a housekeeper in a hospital.

“And they retired doing the same thing. So they never went anywhere else. They knew they had a family to feed, to raise, to provide us with a better life than they did,” Huynh said.

After they settled in, Huynh’s father started his work to make sure other refugees resettling in Des Moines were welcomed properly and had all the support they needed. Now, 45 years later, she does the same thing for the Des Moines office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).

Samantha Huynh
Des Moines resident Samantha Huynh was a refugee from Vietnam. She was resettled in the U.S. as a child. (Kassidy Arena / Iowa Public Radio)

“Just the thought of all that he went through and how he affected other people's lives is very rewarding, knowing that I was a daughter of such a great man. So, following in his footsteps is very rewarding for me,” Huynh said.

She started helping refugees as a teenager by assisting them with paperwork and translating. When she found her father’s old briefcase containing documents from his refugee work, she decided to make a career out of it. She also continues her work in the community outside of an office building, with her “boots on the ground,” in community organizations.

She said people like her, former refugees, helping current refugees resettle has really helped Des Moines become a welcoming place.

“When our new Iowans arrive, there's a lot of trust issues. All the trauma that they've gone through, it's hard to place their trust, their life into somebody's hands,” Huynh explained. “So when they first meet us, and they see that we also came as refugees, they know that we fully understand what they're going through. And we're here to help. And I think that's what gets us through.”

She said Iowa’s agricultural aptitude is another reason why refugees may be drawn to the state. Farming and food production is something they’re familiar with. The average refugee, according to USCRI, spends around 17 years waiting to come to the United States. And in those waiting years, they rely heavily on farming for a source of income and nutrients.

And it’s not only in the agricultural field where immigrants and refugees are flocking to in Iowa. A report found in 2014, only five percent of Iowa’s population was immigrants, but immigrants made up a little more than ten percent of STEM workers.

As far as national standards, the Des Moines strategy seems to be working. There are more than 51,000 refugees in the city alone.

“Des Moines has almost had an intentional strategy to try and be welcoming to new immigrants and really contributed to it having its population grow at twice the U.S. average over the past decade,” DeVol of Heartland Forward said.

Kerri True-Funk is one of the people trying to lead that strategy. As the director of Des Moines’ USCRI, she noted the number of new arrivals over the past few years has been lower than usual. She said most of which come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar.

This could be due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as national and state rhetoric. The Trump administration implemented historically low refugee caps and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has commented on her wish to refuse migrant children from the U.S.-Mexico border.

The national situation caused many resettlement and refugee assistance groups to restructure internally and reorganize decreased resources and funding.

Despite some hurdles in resettlement programs, True-Funk said Des Moines has continued its work in making the city welcoming. She said Des Moines has figured out how to offer affordable living, supportive educational systems and welcoming communities to refugees.

The Des Moines public school districts offer extensive resources for multilingual learners and have implemented bilingual family liaison programs. There are more than 100 languages spoken at homes within the district. Almost 7,000 students in the district are part of the English Language Learner program.

“When you come here as a refugee and you see other people in the community that went through the refugee experience 30 years ago and are thriving in the community, and their kids are graduating from high school and going to college and getting good jobs, that gives a good message,” True-Funk said.

Although resettling new refugees wasn’t as popular in the past two years, True-Funk explained there was one trend that spiked. She described it as a secondary migration. The term applies to people who first resettled in one part of the U.S., but then moved to a different part.

For example, True-Funk said, Des Moines has seen many secondary migrants moving to the city from New Hampshire. This leads to another pattern.

“The more secondary migrants that come here, the more likely we are to have U.S. ties for refugees during initial resettlement,” True-Funk said. “It helps folks feel more welcome because they can see themselves reflected in the community.”

Refugees and immigrants are giving back to the city that welcomed them. According to United Way of Central Iowa, in 2018, they have contributed more than $360 million in taxes just in the Des Moines metro area.

After her parents settled in Iowa, Huynh’s father helped her entire extended family come to Des Moines. Most of them still live here, other than her sister who moved to Florida. Huynh has also raised five children in Des Moines.

“Thank you for accepting us. Thank you for allowing us to grow up here. Thank you for allowing us to raise our children here. It has made a huge difference and a huge impact on our lives,” Huynh said.

The Biden administration has increased the number of refugees the U.S. will accept. Resettlement organizations across the Heartland are preparing for an influx that will most likely appear next year.

DeVol noted that the tension over immigration coincides with the aging of Baby Boomers, who are experiencing a type of social shift that hasn’t occurred in their lifetimes.

“Eventually they’re no longer around and as other cohorts age, such as millennials, their norms and views become more accepted.” DeVol said, “Demography is destiny.”

This report comes from the Midwest Newsroom – a collaboration that includes Nebraska Public Media, NPR, and public radio stations in Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. Iowa Public Radio’s Kassidy Arena contributed to this report.