Community, History, Refugees

Learning About Migrants and Refugees in Rural Iowa Through Course-Embedded Fieldwork

October 23, 2018

By Sharon M. Quinsaat

In spring 2018, I taught a sociology course entitled “Migrants, Refugees, and Diasporas” at a private liberal arts college in central Iowa, Grinnell College. The course offered an introduction to the study of migration from a global and transnational perspective. Drawing from comparative case studies of migrant communities in Southern/Western Europe, the Americas, and East/Southeast Asia, the course was divided into modules answering four key questions: How do we study the cross-border movement of people? Why and how do people cross borders? How do migrants and refugees belong in their countries of origin and settlement? Why and how do states reinforce their borders?

When I proposed the course in fall 2017, I envisioned it to offer a venue for students to learn about migration in Iowa and to encourage them to undertake research in this part country, using perspectives and methods that push the frontiers of social sciences. In recent years, scholars have shifted the study of migrants and refugees from long-established gateway cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago to nontraditional destinations such as rural towns in Midwestern states including Iowa. Although the theories developed from the experience of migrants and refugees in global, cosmopolitan landscapes have been useful in identifying concepts and hypotheses in the investigation of those who have settled in rural areas, they remain limited in capturing the complexities of everyday immigrant life in new places of settlement. Thus, I wanted to take my students to these towns where migrants and refugees have lived for years, listen to their stories, and observe the spaces of economic and social interaction.

Refugees and Immigrants in Central Iowa

Being an immigrant myself and having lived only in urban and suburban, multicultural cities such as Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Irvine, I had limited knowledge of migrants and refugees in America’s heartland and was initially apprehensive of the expectations I laid out about the course. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to attend the second annual Refugee Summit held in Des Moines on October 6-7, 2017 and hosted by the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa, United Way of Central Iowa, and community partners from business, government, education, and nonprofit organizations. Most of the speakers in the summit were recently-arrived refugees from Burundi, DR Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, and Sudan as well as from the older communities of Albanian and Vietnamese refugees. They shared their experience of displacement, journey from refugee camps to the first country of asylum, and the eventual settlement in Central Iowa. Numerous refugee organizations such as United Way, Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center, and Nisaa African Women’s Project talked about their work, particularly the challenges they face given the political climate.

In the summit, I learned that Iowa, under Governor Robert Ray’s leadership, was the first state to welcome Southeast Asian refugees to the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in 1975, resettling approximately 1,200 Tai Dam refugees. In the 1980s and 1990s, Iowa became home to Eastern Europeans and Bosnians fleeing the war in the Balkans. Since 2007, most of the refugees come from Afghanistan, Bhutan, DR Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, and Sudan. Iowa ranks 34th in the nation for the number of refugees per capita it has resettled from the seven countries listed in President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

Course-Embedded Travel to Marshalltown

In the early weeks of the semester, students engaged in an end-of-the-module activity for them to be able to synthesize and apply the concepts, theories, and methods central to the study of migration. They developed a research agenda for studying Iowa as an immigrant and refugee destination. The projects employed a transformative paradigm, in which migrants and refugees are not research subjects; rather, they are sources of knowledge and collaborators in knowledge production. Thus, it is essential that they are included in the project development process. The five studies are as follows:

1.         Urban and rural assimilation patterns in second-generation Iowans

2.         Comparing settlement outcomes of immigrants and refugees in Iowa

3.         Determinants of movement and settlement in rural areas

4.         Immigration status and its effects on belonging

5.         Lived experience of Burmese immigrants and refugees


As part of the course, we went to Marshalltown in Iowa to foster interest in conducting further research on immigrants and refugees in Iowa. Marshalltown has been a destination for immigrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala in the last 20 years, most of them employed in JBS USA Holdings, Inc., an American food processing company that purchased Swift & Company. Social infrastructures have been built and developed to support the Latino population that has continuously grown since the 1990s. In 2006, Marshalltown was a site of raids by the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement in a coordinated effort to crack down on employment of undocumented workers in Swift plants around the country. The town is also a place of resettlement for Burmese refugees—mostly from the Karen, Karenni, and Chin ethnic groups. The Burmese population is the largest refugee group to enter Iowa since 2008. Marshalltown, therefore, offers an accessible site for students to learn about migration research with immigrants and refugees as sources of knowledge.

Students met with nonprofit organizations that work directly with immigrants and refugees. These include the Child Abuse Protection Services (CAPS), Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown, and St. Mary’s Hispanic Ministry. Most of those who work in these organizations are immigrants and refugees themselves. For instance, the students learned from the experiences of Mai Mome and Nying Tin, RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps members with MICA, the challenges of resettlement, particularly the language and social norms in the U.S. Mai speaks Burmese, and Nying Tin speaks Pa’O Karen, Burmese, and Thai. They are both “secondary migrants,” as they first resettled in other states before eventually moving to Iowa. They help instruct English as a Second Language courses at the Iowa Valley Education and Training Center and offer assistance to parents who are adjusting to their children’s schoolwork.

The students also listened to the story of Maria Gonzalez, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who underwent an arduous journey in the process of applying for permanent residency. The December 12, 2006 coordinated raid of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Swift plants around the country—where almost 1,300 undocumented immigrants were detained nationwide—almost tore Maria’s family apart. She recounted the events that transpired before and after the raid and the unexpected outcome for her, her family, and the community. Maria is now a bilingual teacher for low-income families and one of the leaders of the migrants’ rights movement in Central Iowa.

Lastly, Joa LaVille of Immigrant Allies and Sister Christine Feagan of St. Mary’s spoke of community efforts to assist and protect refugees and immigrants, especially the collaboration between the Marshalltown Police Department and immigrant and refugee organizations. Joa and Sister Chris serve as bridge builders between the native-born and migrant and refugee population, initiating dialogue and organizing local events. After the meetings, the students visited local businesses owned by migrants and refugees, which have become popular even among residents from out of town.


 At the beginning of the class session following the trip to Marshalltown, the students shared their thoughts and insights. All of them came out of the experience with a range of emotions—from surprise to disheartenment to hopefulness. Several noted that they did not expect Iowa would be considered home to refugees and migrants from all over the world, especially after hearing Mai’s, Nying’s, and Maria’s assertion that they do not have plans of moving to another state. A few considered the trip an “eye opener” about the challenges of being a racialized minority living in rural America. Maria’s story about the ICE raids struck a chord with the students who have peers who are DACA recipients and encouraged them to be vigilant of the current administration’s immigration and refugee policy. Most of them though were optimistic, especially after becoming aware of local community support to migrants and refugees. Students who spoke Arabic, Burmese, Chin, Karen, and Spanish have contacted the organizations we met with for internship and volunteer opportunities.

The trip to Marshalltown encouraged me to contemplate about pedagogy for migration and refugee studies, which should not just focus on learning about facts and theories, but should also be transformative to the students. To do this, a partnership with local organizations is needed to ensure that the activity is mutually beneficial to the academia and community. It is also important for the students to familiarize themselves about the community by conducting preliminary research and to exercise reflexivity in the fieldwork process. Lastly, positionality must be discussed prior to visiting social sites, especially in educational trips that aim to introduce students to the day-to-day lives of population that are considered marginalized and vulnerable.


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