Immigrants in the Heartland: Four Case Studies Depict the Challenges and Opportunities When New Faces and New Languages Show Up in Town

By Cocheo, Steve | ABA Banking Journal, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Immigrants in the Heartland: Four Case Studies Depict the Challenges and Opportunities When New Faces and New Languages Show Up in Town


Cocheo, Steve, ABA Banking Journal


Josef Vich, a longtime community banker, can look down the main street of Waterloo, Iowa, and point out to you the businesses that didn't used to be there--businesses that have transformed this typical farm-belt town center into something else.

"We're starting to get a more diverse downtown here in Waterloo that would begin to remind you of New York City or of Washington, D.C.," says Vich (pronounced "Vick").

The cause is a steady wave of immigration that has hit Waterloo and its environs over the last 15 years. As immigrants have moved up the economic chain from the entry-level jobs that brought them to Iowa, some have branched into small businesses--bakeries, restaurants, what have you--that provide the kinds of foods they enjoyed in their home countries. A region known not only for growing the grains that make plain white bread, but also for consuming it, has come to know demographic change.

This is a development seen in many parts of the Farm Belt, from the bigger cities to even tiny towns.

In some cases, communities or factions within them haven't been so happy about the changes taking place in areas that have historically been rather homogenous in social, racial, political, and economic makeup. In others, change has either been welcomed as a necessary economic vitamin shot, or, at the least, adapted to. Inevitably, no business can be more central to this evolution than banking.

"If you choose to embrace immigration, it's a benefit in all regards," says Vich, president and CEO of $270 million-assets Community National Bank. Vich is, himself, of Czechoslovakian stock. His grandfather came to this country and the family eventually found itself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Butchering to building to baking

Waterloo, though more an industrial community than a farming town, very much depends on the agricultural sector for its continued survival. Two of the largest employers in the area are farm related. There's a John Deere factory nearby that makes the top-end tractors, and Tyson Foods took over a slaughterhouse operation nearby from IBP (formerly, Iowa Beef Processors) and has turned it into a high-production, state-of-the-art plant.

Finding local labor for the slaughterhouse proved troublesome over the years, says Vich. The native Iowa population is growing older, as the children of the older generation choose to move to other parts of the country. Of the younger people remaining, there is little enthusiasm for jobs involving killing and butchering.

Thus the slaughterhouse has been bringing in immigrant labor for years. Initially, says Vich, this consisted chiefly of Hispanic and Asian workers, but in the last seven years or so, many more of the new workers have been Bosnians.

All through this period, the immigrant workers have followed a typical pattern. They begin with the less-desirable slaughterhouse jobs and then, as they acquire manual skills, training, and better English, they move into positions at two cabinet factories nearby. In time, some start their own restaurants, groceries, bakeries, and other small businesses.

The Bosnian in-migration began in the latter 1990s and one estimate puts their population in the area at about 3,000. Many have college-level education, but arrived lacking the English skills to work at anything other than routine manual labor and the financial resources to start anything of their own.

Language was a problem. "We had very few people who could translate Bosnian," says Vich.

The local education system stepped in with English training aimed specifically at the new arrivals. Once portions of the Bosnian community had made it through the training, "things progressed quite well," says Vich. He has employed several Bosnians himself, which has helped the bank work with these immigrants.

The Bosnians themselves learned to adapt. Often, they arrive at the bank in groups, bringing a translator with them so they can all take care of their banking needs in one shot. …

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Immigrants in the Heartland: Four Case Studies Depict the Challenges and Opportunities When New Faces and New Languages Show Up in Town
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