Refugees in Iowa introduce unprecedented language barriers in rural communities
Posted by Christopher Coen on August 5, 2012
The influx of refugees to rural meatpacking communities in Iowa has produced unprecedented language barriers in rural communities such as Columbus Junction, Marshalltown, Perry and Postville. The refugees are filing a void left by Mexicans and Central Americans after stepped-up enforcement of federal immigration laws and the record number of illegal immigrant deportations in recent years. The refugees represent an unprecedented mix of people with dozens of various languages. Last month, three Myanmar refugee children drowned while swimming in the Iowa river in Marshalltown. Although the police contacted a volunteer Myanmar interpreter to assist the grief-stricken refugee family, but the family and the interpreter spoke different languages. As a result, it took police more than 12 hours to confirm the identities of the children, and delayed funeral arrangements. An article in the Des Moines Register explains:
The face of Iowa’s meatpacking towns is changing once again, as communities that adapted to new residents from Mexico and other Latino countries now see a surge of refugees from Southeast Asia.
The shift has…introduced unprecedented language barriers in these rural communities. But it’s also bolstering rural populations and creating new opportunities for businesses that serve the newcomers…
Over the past 18 months, towns like Columbus Junction, Marshalltown, Perry and Postville have received an influx of refugees, particularly from Myanmar, formerly Burma, a southeast Asian country struggling to establish democracy after years of dictatorship.
The stream of refugees comes at the right time for companies looking for workers…
“What this does is produce a very diverse workforce that’s in the country legally, so we escape all these concerns about the undocumented workforce,” said Mark Grey, a University of Northern Iowa anthropology professor who calls the demographic shift a “post-Latino” immigration era. “Of course, the challenges now have to do with the tremendous diversification of the languages and ethnicities.”
The federal government in recent years has clamped down on illegal immigration, and employers have turned to legal populations such as refugees and residents from U.S. territories in the South Pacific to fill jobs, said Michele Devlin, a UNI public health professor who studies Iowa immigration trends.
The result, she said, is an unprecedented mix of people settling in Iowa from across the globe: Sudanese refugees from a variety of tribes who speak more than 100 languages; refugees from Myanmar, where there are dozens of dialects; and South Pacific islanders fluent in languages spoken by just a few thousand people.
It’s a challenge for cash-strapped small towns and schools to help new residents find a place to live, set up utilities and register children for classes. Even professional telephonic interpreter services sometimes have had trouble finding someone who speaks a language, Devlin said.
The language barriers rarely make headlines until tragedy strikes. In July, three Myanmar refugee children drowned while swimming in a Marshalltown river. The police contacted a volunteer Burmese interpreter to assist the grief-stricken family, but the family and the interpreter spoke different languages. As a result, it took police more than 12 hours to confirm the identities of the children, and longer than normal to arrange funerals.
“It’s not that we just have a vast variety of languages, but many of these languages are classified as rare, and relatively few people speak them in the world,” Devlin said. “What do you do in the event of emergencies or health care or finding a place to live?”… Read more here