Over the past five years, Ben Champ, president of the American Planning Association’s Iowa Chapter, a national organization with more than 35,000 members involved in the planning profession, has fielded numerous requests from city and town leaders across the country—all them seeking advice on how to attract and integrate immigrants into their communities. Rural towns with a dwindling workforce are desperate for programs that would attract immigrants. And towns with large immigrant populations are eager to help newcomers overcome language barriers. The end goal is the same: fortify the American economy. “From a pure economic standpoint, if you don’t have immigration reform, our economy and communities are in jeopardy,” says Champ. “You have to have that change. There’s not enough workforce without them.”
Case in point, Champ points to his own state of Iowa. “Like many rural areas across the nation, rural Iowa is on a downward population path,” he says. “From a budgetary perspective, if your city is going to maintain services, you need population growth; if you’re not growing you’re dying. So the cities that have embraced immigrant populations are going to grow.”
But that requires a lot of work, says Champ. Cities and towns need to adapt to new communities who bring different cultural values and practices. They need infrastructure in place that teaches newcomers how to navigate the system, how to abide by local codes and ordinances, and how to integrate into the broader community.
If you’re not growing you’re dying. So the cities that have embraced immigrant populations are going to grow.
Champ was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa and received his masters in urban planning from the University of Iowa. He currently works as the assistant city manager for the Pleasant Hill, a suburb of Des Moines. His town doesn’t have many immigrants, but his work with the American Planning Association places him in direct contact with community leaders across the nation, all of whom see a looming labor shortage as baby boomers retire. Filling these empty jobs “will be the challenge of the next 15 years,” says Champ. But in order to do this, Champ says that we need a national shift in policy. Addressing these problems, he says, isn’t something a city council can do overnight.
As a proud Iowan, Champ recognizes that his state has historically been a leader in the acceptance of marginalized groups, as evidenced when Iowa became the third state to legalize same-sex marriage. Today, he hopes state leaders will embrace immigrant populations and support policy reforms that provide a streamlined path to citizenship. Both of these things are crucial to America’s—and Iowa’s—economic success. “Iowa is at a decision point on whether its going to continue to be a leader or not,” says Champ. And so, how soon do we need immigration reform? According to Champ, “Yesterday.”