America needs more Robert Rays.
Ray, Iowa’s 38th governor from 1969 to 1983, died Sunday. Condolences from around the world quickly rolled in, demonstrating Ray’s status as a statesman uniquely beloved by people of all political views. As Americans wrestle with divisive questions about immigration and foreign policy, we need Ray’s wisdom now more than ever.
In decades of public life, the most lasting piece of Ray’s legacy is his support for refugee families. The turmoil created by the communist movement in Asia last century displaced thousands of refugees. Ray became the United States’ leading advocate for resettlement.
When then-President Gerald Ford, a fellow Republican, asked for governors’ help with the refugee crisis in 1975, Ray took the lead. More than 1,000 members of the Tai Dam community, originally residing in Vietnam and China, found new homes in Iowa.
Ray saw the refugee program as an overwhelming success in Iowa. He firmly rejected claims, like the ones we still hear today, that refugee families would become burdens on taxpayers.
“These people have become productive, contributing members of our society, paying taxes and earning their own way. A survey recently conducted indicated that over one-third of the families are purchasing their own homes. There has been little need for welfare assistance and all seeking work are gainfully employed,” Ray said during a testimony to a U.S. House subcommittee considering refugee legislation in 1979, in remarks archived by the State Historical Society.
Not only did Ray identify these new Iowans’ contributions to the workforce, he also saw the value of multiculturalism in our nation of immigrants. Ray advocated for resettling refugee communities together, rather than dispersing families across the country.
“We felt the Tai Dam’s cultural heritage and social structure could be preserved if they were resettled in one area. Otherwise, they faced dispersal to all parts of the United States with little chance of maintaining their identity,” he told members of Congress in 1979.
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Ray’s views on refugees demonstrate a remarkable contrast to the current crop of Republican politicians. Today, too many conservative leaders have been swept up in an ugly culture war, wrongly arguing shifting demographics threaten western culture.
U.S. Rep. Steve King is the prime example. In recent years, the Iowa Republican has consistently promoted the idea that cultural diversity is bad for our nation.
That same line of thinking helped propel President Donald Trump to the White House on an anti-immigration platform last election. Even among Republicans who don’t explicitly put forth such rhetoric, too many have sat quietly by and refused to denounce the reckless statements made by Trump, King and others.
Sadly, our Republican Party is no longer the party of Robert Ray, but it could be again. If Republicans want to honor Ray’s legacy, we must start by welcoming immigrants and refugees.
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