THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE: Immigrants do their part for Iowa economy

Immigrants account for 4.5 percent of Iowa's economic output

“There are a lot of patients that need us,” says Dr. Martin Cearras (right), who listens as Verne Wilkinson of Cedar Rapids take breaths during his appointment at Mercy Pulmonology Clinic in Cedar Rapids. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG-TV9 TV9)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Maria Gonzalez and her husband, Javier, always wanted to start their own business.

In 2004, they opened El Super Burrito and Lupita's Bakery in Cedar Rapids to serve authentic Mexican meals and pastries.

The Gonzalez family came from Temascalcingo in southern Mexico and are immigrants to Iowa.

So is Dr. Martin Cearras, who completed medical school in Argentina. After working in Miami for seven years, he moved to Cedar Rapids.

Cearras runs the Mercy Pulmonology Clinic in Cedar Rapids with two colleagues, also immigrants to Iowa.

Cearras and Maria and Javier Gonzalez are just a few of the people who have come to Iowa from around the world.

Immigrants contribute to the strengthening of Iowa's economy, bring an entrepreneurial spirit that leads to job creation and add to the diversity of Iowa's communities, experts say.

“They provide a very valuable source of labor,” Grey said. “Also, you see tremendous growth in retail activity because these are folks that now have an income and they need to buy things like enough diapers and milk and bread.”

And, at the high end of the skills spectrum, highly skilled immigrants often provide a service that is in short supply, Cearras said.

“There are a lot of patients that need us. It's very difficult to recruit (physicians),” he said.

Dr. Georges Hajj, a cardiologist with UnityPoint Clinic Cardiology in Cedar Rapids, agreed. Hajj received his medical degree from St. Joseph's University in Lebanon.

“My skill sets in multiple areas, when it comes to procedures, are not available in multiple places, including here,” he explained.

Hajj treats patients with heart disease, and he sees them in the emergency room and treats patients in a lab where he does procedures to treat their heart arteries if they are blocked. He also can help treating structural problems of the heart.

Economic benefits

In 2008, 4.5 percent to the state's GDP was attributable to immigrants, said Dave Swenson, an Iowa State University economist.

Swenson looked at the jobs of immigrants by industry and estimated their earnings to reach the estimate, he said.

“There's a lot of misperceptions, misconceptions and misunderstandings about foreign-born workers,” Swenson said. For example, he said, “For the most part, regardless of what their actual status might be, the vast majority of foreign-born workers must, by law, contribute fully to all of the basic taxes.”

Swenson further noted a July report by Iowa City-based Iowa Policy Project that said immigrants make up 4.3 percent of the state's population and account for 4.5 percent of the state's economic output.

“If they're getting a paycheck, then obviously they are paying income taxes, both state and federal income taxes,” said Grey, of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration.

And today Iowa companies are tapping into legal immigrants to help fill jobs, said Michele Devlin, professor of health promotion and education at the University of Northern Iowa and director of the Iowa Center on Health Disparities.

“They are actually recruiting many of these people and utilizing them, particularly because in the state of Iowa we're depopulating our rural areas and our young people are leaving the state for other jobs,” Devlin said.

“So we need workers in these kinds of jobs that typically might have been done by Iowans in previous years. We don't have enough workers.”

Maria Gonzalez, from El Super Burrito, said immigrants are active, engaged members of their communities.

“People from Hispanic countries and other countries, we're always looking to work,” she said. “If they don't have a job, they look for a job.

“We don't just sit at our houses and watch TV. We're trying to make contributions for what we want.”

Devlin and Grey said communities that have welcomed immigrants and refugees also have seen an increase in entrepreneurship.

Stefanie Munsterman-Robinson, interim director at the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission, said immigrants help make the state more competitive internationally while adding revenue.

“When they start a new business, that's revenue,” she said. “That's revenue for the state, that's revenue locally, and then it creates jobs.”

The influx of immigrants to the state does mean communities must deal with assimilation and cultural and language issues, Grey said.

“It's tough when you have several languages in a town and you don't have the resources to communicate well,” he said. “It does present challenges.”

Cultural diversity

“When I think of Iowa, I think, the people of Iowa are frugal, they're resourceful, they're innovative, they're hardworking, and I would use all of those words to describe the immigrants and refugees that I work with every day,” said Greg White, immigrant and refugee coordinator at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids, which provides tutoring for adult learners studying English as a second language.

“They survived and they are resourceful, and when they come here they don't lose that. I think in many ways, our students really continue to carry on the traditions of Iowa.”

“America was built on immigration,” Cearras said. “Adding people from different places can change perspective. You learn a lot of things talking to people from other countries.

“We tend to do things differently. Different sometimes is a good thing.”


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