Three years ago, Arzania Williams eagerly manned the welcome wagon that greeted 1,400 Indochinese refugees newly arrived in this largely rural state.
Williams, a black community activist, urged local supermarkets to donate food, found shelter for about 10 refugee families and ran a one-man taxi service for Iowa's newest minority. He called it "the poor helping the poor."
But today, when Gov. Robert D. Ray is urging Iowans to open their hearts for 1,500 more Indochinese refugees, when the state is getting national attention and winning praise for running its own refugee resettlement program, Williams is walking away.
"I know the governor is sincere and I don't have anything against helping these people," Williams said. "But, damn, it just burns me up that refugees always seem to be raised above blacks... I wish we had come as refugees, but we came as slaves. Everybody still sees us as inferior," he said.
Williams' frustration with refugee resettlement is shared, for different reasons, by a growing number of Americans. Pressed by rising costs, strained by increased competition for shrinking resources and filled with perceptions of unfulfilled dreams, they are asking disturbing questions about the nation's refugee policy -- or "non-policy," as it is called by detractors.
The questions -- How many refugees can we accept? How and why will we select them? What do we mean in saying we want them to become a part of mainstream America? -- are being asked with increasing frequency in this state, which proudly calls itself "a place to grow."
Despite Ray's claim that his "is not only a state in the heart of the nation, but it is also a state with a heart," Iowans are ambivalent.
Many have responded with All-American zeal to the governor's call last month to "help these unfortunate refugees who look to America as their only hope for a new life after having risked their lives to escape Communist rule."
Colleen Shearer, the hard-driving director of Iowa's state employment office who also oversees the Iowa Refugee Center, said she is elated by the hundreds of people who have offered to assist the refugees.
Shearer, who half-jokingly describes herself as "a Green Beret conservative doing my patriotic duty," said she expects to have enough homes and jobs to accommodate at least 350 of the new refugees by April 29 -- the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saigon to Communist forces.
The expected newcomers are Vietnamese "boat people," so called because they have spent months trapped aboard freighters off the coasts of Malaysia and Hong Kong. Ray's appeal to help them came Jan. 17, one day after he watched the CBS documentary, "The Boat People," which portrayed the plight of the boat-bound refugees.
"I am thrilled to tears," one Iowan wrote. "You have restored all my faith in public officials," said a writer from Portland, Maine, commenting on the state's program and Ray's offer of help.
But Ray and his aides say they are aware of another, possibly larger sentiment represented by the Arzania Williamses of Iowa, most of whom did not bother to write.
"We knew there is a lot of [negative] feeling out there," one aide said.
But Ray said in an interview, "We happen to think that our job is not just limited to the balance sheets [financial or political], although we know that's important," he said.
Still, the governor mixed ecomomic palliatives with his call to help more refugees. He noted that, since th state's entry into the refugee resettlement business in 1975, it has been able to help more than 1,400 Indochinese "without any disruption to our local economy.
"We have had almost no refugees on welfare. Almost everyone has a regular job and over one-third now own their own homes," Ray said.
He added: "Whose jobs are they taking? The other day I looked at the paper and saw eight pages of help wanted ads.... A lot of these jobs are going begging."
Iowa is a job-rich state. Its unemployment rate is only 4 percent, and it has a diversified economy that includes agricultural, industrial and service occupations.
The state's 2.9 million citizens are 98.2 percent white. The remaining 1.8 percent nonwhite population is mostly black. However, here, as in other parts of the nation, the largest proportion of the poverty and unemployment is concentrated in the nonwhite group.
Arzania Williams gets angry about this. Poor and struggling middle-class whites, for different reasons, do the same thing, too.
"Just because you can look in the paper and see a lot of jobs available, that doesn't mean they're there for blacks," Williams said.
Williams, a paunchy man of 50 who oversees Des Moines' Gateway Community Center, pulled a sheaf of papers from a drawer and slammed them on his desk.
"These are the applications of dozens of young blacks who have come through this office looking work...Now, I'll be the first to admit that some of them just weren't ready. But most of them had the needed skills. Were they hired? No. You wanna know why? Because the white employers are telling these young people the same thing they told me in my day: 'Don't call me, I'll you,'" Williams said.
The black community leader also said his turnabout in attitude toward the refugee program occurred "because I discovered the strangest thing."
"Many of these people resented the fact that a black group was offering help," he said of the refugees sponsored by his center in 1975. "They thought they were going to be helped by whites... Some of them are more prejudiced against blacks than the American white man."
That charge was both denied and supported by whites and blacks alike.
Kalonji Saadiq, a former Black Panther leader in Des Moines, said he thought Williams was wrong on the allegation of racism.
"I think it may have nothing to do with race," said Saadiq. "It's just that when you take people away from their homeland and put them in a new environment, they're going to be clannish. Give them time..."
However, one white state official who once worked with the state refugee program commented: "Those feelings exist. Many of the Indochinese chinese regard whites as being No. 1, themselves as being No. 2 and blacks as being No. 3 in the scheme of things."
"It's like this," said another white, who also requested anonymity. "The Thai Dam [the first Indochinese refugees resettled in the state program] are like any other immigrants. They want to get to the top. And when you want to get to the top, you don't line up with the bottom."
Huong Baccam, a local Thai Dam leader who also works as an outreach worker in the state's resettlement program, said he does want to get to the top -- but not at the expense of anyone else, certainly not at the cost of adding amother ingredient to America's long-standing racial conflict.
"We had no bad feelings against Gateway," he said of Williams' center. "Mr. Williams was understaffed and some whites told our people that he wasn't doing enough for them. Some of our people believed them and I think that made Mr. Williams angry," Baccam said.
The point now is to enter the American mainstream, said Baccam. To him, that means starting businesses and buying enough homes on Des Moines' East Side "so that our people can live as one, together again."
A kind of segregation? Baccam smiled. "No," he said "We always lived together. I think it is good of this country to let us live together again."
"That's okay," say Williams. "But would this country extend the same' privilege to 1,500 blacks if they were struck on boats, trying to escape from Rhodesia, or Uganda, or Haiti? Would the governor of Iowa say: 'Send them to me?'"
And what if Ray did extend the same welcome to black refugees that he extended to the Indochinese?
"Hell," said Williams. "I'd be the first black person to tell the world that the man should be elected president."