Community Learning Series Highlights Effort to Welcome and Include Immigrants

On October 30, about 60 people gathered at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library for the Community Learning Series: Gateways for Growth. This was the second event in a new series aimed at elevating awareness, generating discussion and encouraging action around issues of broad community importance.

October’s event focused on emerging efforts to make Linn County a more welcoming place for new Americans.

Earlier this year, the City of Cedar Rapids received a $12,500 grant from New American Economy (NAE)—which was matched by the Community Foundation for a total of $25,000—to seek and develop strategies to attract, retain and integrate immigrants and international talent.

To inform those strategies, NAE produced a report on the demographic and economic contributions of immigrants in Linn County. The City of Cedar Rapids and the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance also formed a steering committee and contracted Iowa State University Extension and Outreach to carry out qualitative research in order to better understand what efforts could most benefit the community.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart opened the Community Learning Series event by reiterating the city’s commitment. “Cedar Rapids was built on a tradition of immigrant workers who created unique cultures and neighborhoods that remain today,” he said. “We are eager to develop programs and initiatives to continue our city’s tradition of welcoming diversity, building on our strong and productive workforce, and enhancing our economy.”

Kate Brick, Director of State and Local Initiatives at NAE, shared their findings, which explored population growth, education, and spending power, among other areas. “Between 2012 and 2017, almost half of all population growth in Linn County was attributable to immigrants,” she said. “They earned $305 million in wages and paid $80 million in taxes, leaving them with $225 million in spending power.”

Data from NAE includes all foreign-born people living in Linn County, regardless of immigration status, and shows that immigrants are more likely to earn advanced degrees and start new businesses. Of the 9,576 immigrants living in Linn County, 18.3% are potentially eligible for naturalization.

“This report quantifies what many people in Cedar Rapids already know—immigrants play a key role in driving economic growth,” Kate said. “We’re excited to see how the Cedar Rapids community uses this data to support its ongoing work to ensure all residents are welcome and have pathways to success.”

Eric Christianson, Field Specialist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, also provided an update from the local collaboration. The Steering Committee, composed of 18 immigrants and local leaders, conducted focus groups to explore what challenges and opportunities local immigrants are seeing. These interviews suggest that although skilled-labor jobs are available, cultural barriers sometimes prevent qualified immigrants from filling those positions.

Eric also outlined the initial vision of the project, which has established three focus areas: welcoming community, workforce and education, and business development and entrepreneurship. The resulting plan was released on December 4th and details a series of action steps.

The Community Learning Series also highlighted the stories of Wafaa Bedreddeen and Jeremie Diame, immigrants who now work as interpreters at Hands Up Communications. Wafaa, who moved here from Lebanon 24 years ago, spoke of the importance of supporting people as they navigate new cultures. Jeremie, who came from Senegal in 2010, described the challenges finding employment and accessing education. “Iowans are so friendly,” Wafaa said. “If the people who come here find someone who can help them, they will not have a reason to leave.”

To view the report from New American Economy, the resulting Gateways for Growth Plan, or the video of Wafaa and Jeremie, go to