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Immigrant plan: SL a model for state's efforts

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

State New Iowans committee calls for ban on human trafficking, expanded ESL teaching

On the heels of a recent public hearing conducted in Storm Lake, a legislative study committee on New Iowans on Monday issued a stack of recommendations calling for efforts to better assimilate immigrants.

Key points include a specific ban on human trafficking as a means to target those who profit on the dangerous practice of smuggling illegal immigrants, and a call for expanded efforts to teach English as a Second Language.

The committee is also calling for new incentives to increase the number of police officers, teachers and medical personnel who are trained to be bilingual.

Local state representative Mary Lou Freeman served on the committee, which she said was originally assembled to look into workforce development, but later expanded on its social role.

While some federal lawmakers are speaking of issues such as barbed-wire fences across the U.S./Mexico border, Freeman said her group looked for the upside in Iowa immigrants.

"We need to do something positive," she said. "It's easy to get the headlines with negative things. Our feeling is to let the feds take care of their own problems and focus on improving people's situation in Iowa."

That process got a headstart in Storm Lake, one of Iowa's first communities to deal with major immigration. "Programs like Head Start and after-school academies in Storm Lake should serve as the model for the rest of the state to follow," Freeman said. "I can tell you that all of the commissioners were wholeheartedly very impressed with what they found going on in Storm Lake.

"Immigration has been a challenge in Storm Lake, but the community has risen to the challenge."

A strong consensus by the committee was the need for bilingual public services, especially in police and public safety. At the last moment on Monday, the committee decided to add the medical field to police and education as areas to recommend incentives.

"We need some way to attract bilingual people to some of the more rural or low-income city areas," Freeman said.

The recommendations that the committee will pass to the governor would certainly help in Storm Lake, Freeman feels, in expanded periods for English as a Second Language students and in help for adult ESL programs.

The committee did dodge one divisive issue - driving rights and mandatory ID cards for new immigrants. They will instead ask the governor to convene a more in-depth study on those issues.

If there is one thing lacking in the recommendations, Freeman admits, it is attitude to go with the mechanics of positive immigration. "We will need to make it easier for the communities to accept the new Iowans, and that will mean things like mentoring, and new ways to help them learn how to properly use our health system."

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, co-chairman of the committee, said there's broad criticism of the nation's immigration laws, but little the Legislature can do about those. That means lawmakers should focus on areas where they can have an impact, he said.

The committee also held hearings in Des Moines, Ottumwa and Davenport - all cities which have seen a sharp increase in immigrants, particularly Hispanics - to gather public comment on the state's immigration laws.

"The Iowa communities affected by new Iowans thus far are clearly telling us that the first thing the state needs to do is expand efforts to help people learn English," said Bolkcom.

The recommendation would expand English programs in elementary and secondary school, but also calls for additional preschool and adult training.

"As you go up in age, it is more difficult," said Sen. Maggie Tinsman, R-Davenport.

While most of the discussion was about teaching children, Rep. Jim Hahn, R-Muscatine, said lawmakers must also find ways to help adults become fluent in the language.

"I think it's important that we try to get it to people who are older," said Hahn. "We've got programs out there that we could build on."

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said pressure to increase spending on language training programs has grown since the Legislature passed a measure declaring English the official language of the state.

"If we are going to say that, we ought to put our money where our mouth is," said McCoy.

Tinsman pushed for the ban on human trafficking, saying she met with State Department officials who urged states to pass laws on the issue.

While Congress passed an anti-trafficking measure in 2002, federal officials are swamped with immigration issues, she said.

"They can't possibly police the whole United States," said Tinsman.

She said nine states have passed similar laws, including Illinois, Missouri and Kansas in the Midwest.

"We have to make a strong statement that we will not tolerate slavery," said Tinsman. "We need to make our communities aware, and we need legislation."

Freeman agreed. "This was an eye-opening experience."

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