Iowa, Meet Yourself: Can Attorney General Reclaim State Legacy On Refugees?

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller answers questions at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, November 16,
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller answers questions at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, November 16, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Signing on to a joint statement with 15 other state attorney generals that President Trump's executive order on travel bans is "unconstitutional, un-American and unlawful," Iowa attorney general Tom Miller took a step toward reclaiming the heartland's historical legacy on refugees on Sunday.

For more than 150 years, Iowa has been one of the leaders in the nation as a model host state for refugees.

Floundering in silence or pandering to the Trump administration's draconian executive order to bar entry of Syrians and other refugees, other lawmakers in Iowa could learn a fine history lesson at a town marker 50 miles to the southeast of the state capital in Des Moines.

Fleeing religious persecution in 1847, Dutch immigrants founded Pella, Iowa in the name of an ancient Jordanian city: Pella, the City of Refuge. In the northeast part of the state, the town of Elkader was established in 1846, in the name of Algerian Islamic resistance fighter Abd el-Kader, who earned international acclaim for his role in defending Christian refugees in Syria in 1860. In Iowa City, the Bohumil Shimek Elementary School is named after a son of Czech refugees, who not only became one of the nation's leading ecologists, but played a role in his family's native homeland. Syrians and other immigrants founded the oldest standing Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids in 1934.

Miller's action today reminds us of the lack of moral and political leadership in Iowa grounded in this legacy, and once exemplified by former Republican Gov. Robert Ray, who led the effort to make Iowa the first state to offer refuge to 1,500 Tai Dam refugees from Laos and Vietnam in the 1970s, despite the fact that a Des Moines Register poll showed 51% against resettlement of refugees in Iowa. The Hmong from Laos followed.

"I didn't think we could just sit here idly and say, 'Let those people die,'" Ray said. "We wouldn't want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation...Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you."

A CBS news report on the arrival of refugees from Vietnam in 1979 heralded Iowa's leading role:

Iowans have continued this legacy of inclusion and refuge, as the ranks of immigrants and New Iowans play an increasingly important role in shaping and enlivening communities across state, from areas of business, agriculture and technology, to local food movements, arts and education.

In Iowa poet laureate Mary Swander's acclaimed play, "Vang," four immigrant farm families recount their journeys to Iowa, including Sudanese refugee Joseph Malual, who would eventually earn a PhD in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

"We have to lead the world in showing that we are willing to go to any length to be able to make things right," State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad told KCCI-TV in Des Moines this weekend.

Over a 1,000 refugees relocated to Iowa in 2016, including the first Syrian family in search of a "peaceful life."

"Religious liberty has been, and always will be, a bedrock principle of our country and no president can change that truth," the attorney general's joint statement said today.

From the Amish who fled religious persecution in Switzerland and Germany, to Bosnian war refugees in the 1990s, all Iowans, new and old, should understand this better than anyone.