Who Are the New Iowans?

Welcoming immigrant and refugee newcomers is an Iowa tradition. Iowa is a state of immigrants, and without immigration there would be no Iowa as we know it today.

Refugees are forced to leave their home countries because of war, environmental disasters, political persecution and/or religious or ethnic intolerance.

European immigrants settled in Iowa in the 1800s and early 1900s and created its communities, churches, mosques, synagogues, schools and social institutions. They were also the workers who made Iowa one of the world’s most important agricultural and manufacturing economies.

Immigrant and refugee newcomers in Iowa often came from European countries like Denmark, Norway, Germany, Italy, Greece and the former Czechoslovakia. There were also influxes of African Americans in the early and mid parts of the 20th century. But by 2000 most immigrants and refugees came from other parts of the world— especially Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Balkans. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Iowa welcomed Tai Dam and other Southeast Asian refugees. In the 1990s, the number of Latino newcomers in Iowa grew rapidly. Iowa has also experienced growth in its Bosnian, Sudanese and Somali refugee populations.

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

Iowa’s Growing Foreign-Born Population

The majority of Iowans were born in the United States, and most were born in Iowa. However, the number of residents born in other countries more than doubled between 1990 and 2000.

  • In 1990 there were 43,316 foreign-born people in Iowa or 1.6 percent of the state’s total population. By 2000 there were 91,085 (3.1 percent) foreign-born residents.
  • Only 19,273 Iowa residents entered the U.S. between 1980 and 1990, but 52,335 Iowa residents came to the U.S. over the next decade.
  • In 1990 there were 23,324 non-citizens residing in Iowa. In 2000 there were 61,134 non-citizens.
  • Between 1995 and 2000 alone, the Census Bureau estimates that more than 28,000 foreign-born people arrived in Iowa directly from their home nations.

Where Do the New Iowans Come From?

There has been a dramatic shift in terms of the home regions of newcomers in Iowa. In the 1990 census, 42.8 percent of foreign-born Iowans came from Asia, such as Tai Dam and Vietnamese refugees, and only 13.9 percent came from Latin America. But in the 2000 census, 36 percent of foreign-born Iowans were from Latin America. In Iowa’s Hispanic/Latino population (which includes Hispanics born in Iowa and the United States) the largest group (61,154 or 74 percent) came from Mexico. Others came from Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama and other Latin American nations.

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 former Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, Iraq, Haiti, Cuba and Bosnia and other places in the Balkans. 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. Several thousand more refugees came to the state as “secondary migrants” who were initially resettled in other states but then moved to Iowa.


  • 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).