Challenges for New Iowans

What Is Life in Iowa Like for New Immigrants and Refugees?

Newcomers in Iowa at the beginning of the 21st century had many faces. They came from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Their languages, food and appearances are very different from Iowans who descended from northern European, German, Scandinavian and English families.

Despite a shared “immigrant history,” it may difficult for resident Iowans to understand the immigration experience of recent Latin American, African and Southeast Asian newcomers. Third and fourth generation immigrants who did not experience the migration themselves tend to minimize the difficulties that are associated with settlement in a foreign land. Comments like, “Well, my grandparents learned English” and “Earlier immigrants did their best to assimilate.” often disguise the difficulties faced by German, Norwegian and Irish immigrants when they first settled in Iowa.

In 1887, for example, the American Protection Association was founded in Clinton, Iowa to argue for laws prohibiting Catholics from being elected to public office. Germans and Irish were targeted groups whose traditions contrasted with the ideals of the temperance movement supported by other established immigrant groups. The use of languages other than English was banned for a time in Iowa in 1918. This law angered Iowans who still spoke and worshipped in German, Danish, Norwegian and other European languages.

Just as our own ancestors did, Iowa’s new immigrants and refugees face many challenges.

Cultural Differences

Nothing is familiar. All too often, newcomers arrive with few personal possessions, little ability to speak English, and a set of cultural beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that are very different from those of their new community. Unfortunately, instead of trying to identify similarities shared with immigrants or refugees, some established residents tend to focus on the differences.

Language Differences

For newcomers who have no or very few English skills, living in an English-speaking community can be difficult. Simple things that established residents take for granted, like enrolling children in school or getting a driver’s license, can be intimidating and difficult. Often, adults in the family must spend long hours at work, leaving little time to learn English, which can take several years to master. As a result, they must rely on others to interpret for them. Because their children are the only family members who can enroll in school, some parents are forced to rely on them to translate.

Professional Differences

The work of immigrants and refugees today is very different from the small farming and family industries that was typical of European immigrants a hundred years ago. Newcomers to Iowa typically work in low-paying, entry-level jobs in the service or meatpacking industries. Individuals work long hours, sometimes working two jobs simultaneously. Many immigrants rarely have extra leisure time to spend studying English or volunteering in community activities.

Hostility to Differences

For many immigrants, interaction with established residents is difficult. Language differences make communication difficult, and cultural differences go beyond foods and family life. Newcomers and established residents can have different worldviews that are not always like-minded. And minority newcomers often feel that established residents consider their culture inferior. Sometimes, a lack of understanding of newcomers' cultural traditions can create fear and prejudice.


  • Grey Ph.D, Mark A., Woodrick, Ph.D., Anne C., Yehieli, D.P.H., Michele, Hoelscher, James. The New Iowans, A Companion Book to the PBS Miniseries “The New Americans”, Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, University of Northern Iowa (2003).