Asians in Iowa

It is estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau 2010 American Community Survey that 55,965 API individuals live in Iowa, constituting 1.9% of the state’s total population.

This represents a 10% increase over the 2006 estimate of 45,647 API residents. By 2040, 111,150 Iowans are projected to identify themselves as people of API descent, according to the State Data Center and the Iowa Department of Human Rights Office of Asian Pacific Islander Affairs. The API community, however, is far from homogenous; seven major groups of Asians are present in Iowa:

  • Vietnamese
  • Indian
  • Chinese
  • Laotian
  • Filipino
  • Korean
  • Japanese

In the 2010 U.S. Census, six Asian ethnicities were classified (Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Japanese) and one classification covered all other Asians. Lao, Tai-dam, Hmong and Cambodian residents, for instance, were categorized as “Other Asians”. The U.S. Census is far from an accurate representation of the populations of API communities present in Iowa in 2010 because of an increased number of international students from Asia, in particular from China, at the state universities; interstate migration of API families for work; and a steady flow of refugees from Asia. Though dispersed throughout the state, the API population, of which 50.8% are women, is concentrated in five cities: Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and West Des Moines. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 16.9% of the API population resides in Des Moines, 9.7% in Ames, 8.8% in Iowa City, 5.3% in Cedar Rapids and 5.1% in West Des Moines. There also are significant numbers of API residents in Sioux City and smaller towns such as Pella and Storm Lake.

In 1975, Iowa was the first state to welcome thousands of Vietnamese, Tai-dam, Lao, Khmer (Cambodian) and Hmong refugees fleeing the Vietnam War to settle in the United States. They were sponsored by numerous Iowa families, churches and communities, and sent to live in cities and towns across the state. More recently, Iowa has brought in large numbers of refugees from various nationalities: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Nepal and Pakistan. Furthermore, the proportions of API youths born in the United States as well multiracial youths of partial API descent are also steadily increasing, and these youths have their own unique needs that differ greatly from those of earlier generations.


The Office of Asian Pacific Islander Affairs reports that approximately 73.4% of the API population in the state speaks a language other than English and 33.7% speaks English less than “very well.” Vietnamese is the most widely spoken Asian language. Also among the top ten most frequently spoken languages are Chinese (6,729), Laotian (4,715), Korean (3,917) and Tagalog (Filipino) (2,368). The Des Moines metropolitan area, Ames and Iowa City have the largest concentrations of API professionals.

Industry & Income

A total of 45.3% of Asians are in the management, professional and related occupations field, the State Data Center and the Office of Asian Pacific Islander Affairs report. In production, transportation and materials moving industries, the proportion is 21.1%, while in the service industry, the proportion is 20.7%. College towns such as Ames and Iowa City attract students and academics, whereas Pella, Storm Lake, Sioux City and Cedar Rapids, sites of several meat-processing and window-manufacturing factories, have more working-class families. These factories employ large numbers of API individuals – 23.4% of the population in the towns is engaged in manufacturing work.Most Asian refugee families, especially from the first generation and even some from the second generation, are working class. New refugees in Iowa “typically work in low paying, entry-level jobs in the service or meatpacking industries,” states the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration.

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