Where, oh where, are today’s Bob Rays?

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A group of migrants of Central American origin waits on the railway line to get on a container train, known as "The Beast," to go to the border of the United States and Mexico, between the states of Coahuila (Mexico) and Texas. (iStock image)

It’s hard for those of us of a certain vintage to realize it has been 39 years since Robert Ray was Iowa’s governor.

In spite of the passage of so much time, his name was on the minds of many people last week.

What triggered the Bob Ray memories was Gov. Kim Reynolds’ interview with WHO Radio on Thursday.

Reynolds was asked about the thousands of children, mostly from Central America, who are showing up this year at our border with Mexico without their parents. They arrive hoping to be allowed to live in the United States with relatives or sponsors, freeing them from the deadly violence and the grip of poverty so common where they came from.

Reynolds told WHO she has rejected the federal government request for Iowa to find temporary housing for about 300 of these unaccompanied refugee children. Iowa does not have adequate facilities to house them, she said, and the state already struggles to find foster families for Iowa kids.

“This is not our problem,” she said bluntly. “This is the president’s problem. He’s the one that has opened the border, and he needs to be responsible for this and he needs to stop it.”

In contrast, when a different humanitarian crisis grabbed the world’s attention in 1979, this one involving the “boat people” from Southeast Asia, Ray’s response was blunt, too. But his was different in tone and substance.

“I decided we couldn’t sit here in the middle of Iowa — the land of plenty — and let them die,” he said several years ago, referring to the tens of thousands trying to flee to safety in small, flimsy boats.

“I saw that we really only had two choices: We could either turn our backs as countless others suffered and died, or we could extend a hand to help and, in doing so, prevent tragic loss of innocent lives.”

The refugee crisis began brewing in Southeast Asia 45 years ago as communism was expanding. Ray never tried to assign blame and never said it was someone else’s crisis to solve. Instead, his friend Kenneth Quinn, a former ambassador to Cambodia who grew up in Dubuque, explained the governor’s motivation at Ray’s funeral in 2018.

“When confronted by scenes of human suffering, Robert Ray responded, not as a political candidate doing an electoral calculation, but as a Christian following a moral imperative from the parable of the Good Samaritan,” Quinn said.

Without question, the refugee flood today is a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of children are showing up at the U.S. southern border every week without parents or guardians. The Biden administration has not responded as quickly as it could have, or should have.

But Reynolds opened herself up to criticism, too, for her glib “this is not our problem” response to WHO. Her answer came across as cold-hearted and lacking compassion.

Former Iowa
Gov. Robert D. Ray

The immigration problems along the Mexican border have sharply divided our nation. That makes it difficult to find consensus for how the U.S. should respond.

Lest anyone think Ray had it easier in the 1970s when the issue of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was building, the U.S. was torn apart then by our protracted involvement in the war and by the military draft. And Iowans worried aloud that refugees would take jobs away from people here.

There was plenty of anxiety in Southeast Asia, too, as Communists expanded their hold on the region as the war drew to an end. People there who supported South Vietnam’s government and the American presence feared for their safety and for the well-being of their families.

There were few places where families with names like Vongpanya and Khamphilanouvong, Baccam and Huynh could find security after the U.S. military and diplomats pulled out of South Vietnam in April 1975.

But under Bob Ray’s leadership, Iowa wrapped its arms around these families in communities all across the state. No one expects Iowa will be able to solve today’s refugee problem. But Iowa can help ease the crisis, just as we did 40 years ago.

The refugee children today were pointed toward the United States by parents who hoped their children could escape the poverty and violence that have ravaged many parts of Central America and Mexico.

Although details of the crisis in Southeast Asia and the crisis in Central America are not the same, there is a fundamental similarity: Both involve people wanting the same thing our own ancestors wanted when they came to this place called Iowa. It is the same thing that has motivated immigrants since the beginning of time: a brighter, more secure future with better opportunities for themselves and their children.

Iowa communities rallied 40 years ago to provide housing, jobs and stability for the Asian refugees. There is little doubt that we would do the same for today’s refugee children, if given the opportunity.

There is still time for Reynolds to reconsider her response to the federal government’s request. There is still time for her to remember what Robert Ray demonstrated so wisely: The very best politicians know when it is time to campaign and when it is time to lead.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com