Nebraska's Congressional Involvement
Understanding Words, Culture
Federal Immigration Organizations
Nebraska's Employment Future
Racism? Education? Or Poverty?
Law Enforcement, Public Safety
Children-the Common Denominator of Nebraska's Future
The Role of Religion
After visiting with nearly 100 individuals and hosting several conversations statewide about immigration, the Strategic Discussions for Nebraska research team has learned some interesting information. A summary of this information follows here; overviews of Scottsbluff, Lexington, Crete and Omaha are included, along with a selection of the collected stories - they were selected because the information may help to understand the depth and breadth of the issue in Nebraska.
Federal data indicate that, of today's immigrant worker population, 50 percent come to the U.S. from Mexico; 25 percent from Latin America; and 25 percent from Europe, Asia and Africa. Some are able to work in the U.S. legally; some are not. Public perception is based on superficial knowledge, SDN research shows, and the fear of the unknown or unfamiliar may have a great influence on the topic of immigration. The public can't tell the difference between a worker who is in the country legally and one who is not; they can't tell the difference between people from Mexico and people from Guatemala, for instance, even though there are major differences. In addition, the public may be disseminating and perpetuating myths through the newest technology and techniques available.
The immigration issue is far larger and more complex than most people can imagine, both in Nebraska and nationwide. There is a lack of education about the topic overall, and the media - local and national, broadcast and print - are at least partly responsible, as are the changing news consumption habits of people in the 21st century. People used to read newspapers and listen to the news regularly; today, headlines and the 10-second sound bite may form the depth of news knowledge, based on many interviews in this research project.
The Internet and the blogosphere have contributed to negative attitudes about immigration, as they quickly and widely disseminate myths and misconceptions, as well as vitriolic commentary. Todd Wiltgen, State Director for the office of Senator Chuck Hagel, spends a great deal of time dispelling these misconceptions when constituents write or call Senator Hagel's office. During a recent interview, Wiltgen displayed a large, three-ring binder full of factual reports collected so he could respond to a constituent's concerns about immigration issues. Most of the issues the constituent was worried about were myths, Wiltgen said. The research was provided by the Congressional Research Office and other federal research organizations.Nebraska's Congressional Involvement
Nebraska's congressmen and senators are well-informed about the complexities of the immigration issue and are trying to find the most practical solutions, both for Nebraska and for the country as a whole. However, solutions that make sense in heavily-populated coastal states don't make sense for the sparsely-populated, agrarian Nebraska with its wildly different terrains and lifestyles. Nebraska's Congressional delegates receive a broad spectrum of feedback from their constituents about immigration - everything from "cut it off," "keep it as it is," "lower it," "build a wall," "don't build a wall," "fix the system," and more.
The Strategic Discussions for Nebraska team visited with Congressman Lee Terry, who represents the 2nd District; with Charles Isom, Communications Director for Congressman Adrian Smith, who represents the 3rd District; and with Josh Moenning of Congressman Jeff Fortenberry's office - Fortenberry represents Nebraska's 1st Congressional District. The SDN team also visited with David DiMartino, then-Communications Director for Senator E. Benjamin Nelson, and with Todd Wiltgen, State Director for Senator Chuck Hagel. All are very much aware that the "one-size-fits-all" approach to immigration does not work for Nebraska, or for states similar to Nebraska.
Two of the major issues are fortifying the border with Mexico and identifying the people who are already in the United States and what they are doing here. Since September 11, 2001, much of the focus has been on terrorists possibly coming into the U.S. via the country's southern border. In addition to determining whether undocumented entrants into the U.S. have terrorist ties, federal authorities are looking at drug smugglers, traffickers in humans, gang activity and people who bring in and sell counterfeit goods.
John N. Harms Advanced
Conversations about building a wall across the border between the U.S. and Mexico draw varied comments. One Lincoln employer asked "who will they get to build the wall?" knowing that immigrant labor is used for much of U.S. construction. Chuck Karpf of Scottsbluff is Discovery Program Director for the John N. Harms Advanced Technology Center of Nebraska, and commented recently, "If they're going to close the border with Mexico, they should close the Canadian border, too."Understanding Words, Culture
Conversations with sources throughout Nebraska indicate that people want a standard, respectful vocabulary to describe people, laws and situations. The terms "illegal" and "alien" are two of the terms to which many object. They suggest "undocumented worker" as a more objective term. A list of definitions is provided in this magazine; these are the main terms encountered during this study that require clarification and possibly change, based on feedback from many sources.
The cultural and economic divide is enormous between most Americans and the people who come here for a better life. "We are the shining city on the hill" to them, to quote Steve Frederick, editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Luis Peon-Casanova, lecturer in advertising in the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications, became a U.S. citizen on December 7, 2007. He noted recently that on the north-south highway through Mexico, he has often seen women and children selling snakes, falcons and rugs at the side of the road. That is the life they know; they were born into that lifestyle; their children are born into that lifestyle. They simply don't have the ability to imagine a lifestyle other than selling snakes, falcons and rugs at the roadside, Peon-Casanova said.Federal Immigration Organizations
In March 2003, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) replaced the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and its umbrella organization became the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), also established in March 2003 is the largest investigative and enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
However, the federal immigration system is nearly impossible to access; it changes its focus frequently; the ICE raids on companies that hire immigrant labor are short-sighted, assault many Nebraskans' sense of human rights, break up families and negatively impact communities' economies, as discussed in a meeting of community leaders in Scottsbluff on May 14. Some sources go so far as to allege that these ICE raids are conducted solely for publicity. Even though many Nebraskans object to people working in the U.S. without legal documentation, they object far more strongly to the ICE raids that break up families. Even though a federal software system is available to employers to determine whether employees are legally able to work in the U.S., it is optional. SDN sources believe employers should abide by federal regulations regarding employing undocumented workers so employees aren't caught in such raids, with the inevitable repercussions that follow. Individuals' stories were frequent, detailing unanswered calls, years of waiting for documents and observed mistreatment of would-be applicants in federal immigration offices.
The largest U.S. immigration raid in history took place on May 12, 2008, at Agriprocessors, a Postville, Iowa kosher beef processing plant. Nearly 400 workers were arrested in that ICE raid. A spokesman for Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, said Latham views the raid as a blow to families seeking a better life and for the community, which is suffering economically, according to an Associated Press story in the June 2, 2008 Lincoln Journal Star. The story went on to say that if that many workers were undocumented, the company must have known they were hiring undocumented workers. The SDN community discussion in Scottsbluff on May 14 brought out that if employers were required to hire only workers with legal documentation, it would prevent the kind of human crisis that was visited on the workers of Agriprocessors and their families.Nebraska's Employment Future
Nebraska grows food not only for its own residents, but also for export. Its vast Sandhills region provides a suitable environment for raising cattle, and Nebraska ranks #2 in the United States in cattle production. A large work force is required to grow, transport, process and distribute or ship the product.
With Nebraska's death rate exceeding its birth rate, there is a current shortage of people available to do the work required by that #2 national ranking. And it will only get worse in the future, especially in rural areas of the state, according to Jerrod Haberman, Executive Director of the Panhandle Area Development District. The so-called baby boomer generation will likely retire in the next 10 years, he said, and combined with the fact that deaths are exceeding births, Nebraska's current critical shortage of workers will become even worse by 2018.
Rural Nebraska already has a difficult time finding health-care professionals, not to mention bilingual professionals to serve the population who doesn't speak English. Cal Hiner, administrator of the Tri-County Hospital in Lexington, struggles to fill positions there, and is always on the lookout for bilingual professionals. In addition, Lexington is working on the "grow your own" method of filling health care jobs, which encourages Lexington high school graduates to get the requisite training and return to the community to work.
The increasing technical nature of employment has also changed the employment landscape, and small communities are finding ways to train people to fill these jobs, according to Dr. John Harms, current State Senator from District 48 (Scottsbluff) and retired President of Western Nebraska Community College. The John N. Harms Advanced Technology Center is part of WNCC, and was built to serve the technology training needs of western Nebraska.
The workers from other countries are reliable and loyal and cause few problems, according to employers SDN interviewed; they often have specialized skills learned in their own countries that are valuable in American construction projects.Meatpacking/Processing Jobs
In many cases, beef processing facilities are located close to the source of production; the small towns can't provide enough workers, so immigrant labor fills the positions.
Nebraska's smaller communities are actively recruiting people for available jobs. They're recruiting from Nebraska and from other parts of the U.S., but they're also recruiting from other countries. Without this work force, the state's economy would suffer. Pundits have suggested the immigrant work force is taking jobs Americans won't take, while others disagree.
|Tyson in Lexington|
Todd Wiltgen, State Director in Senator Chuck Hagel's office, said "how much would you want to be paid to work in a meatpacking plant?" He said people are reluctant to answer, and may tell him that "other" people would be happy to take those jobs. Eric Brown, General Manager of KRVN Radio in Lexington, was one of the community leaders who led recruitment efforts to fill a large, empty manufacturing facility in Lexington. When Tyson moved into the structure and set up operations, the need for nearly 2,000 workers was more than the community of 10,000 could provide, so workers from other countries moved in to work in the plant. Some Lexington residents "did try it out," Brown said, but very few remain employed there. It is hard work, and Brown does believe that these workers are filling jobs Americans aren't willing to take.
Angelo Fili, Executive Vice President of Greater Omaha Packing Company in Omaha, hires many Latino workers and uses the federal verification software to be sure the company's employees are working in the U.S. legally. The company has built an addition to the plant specifically to provide for the sorts of formal and informal educational needs of the employees - language classes, citizenship classes, classes to help them understand American banking and culture - whatever they would like to learn, "we'll find a teacher." The classes are offered free of charge, Fili said. The employees are valuable to the company, he said, and the company wanted to give back to them. An unexpected result was that the program also grew company loyalty.Language
Historically, immigrants to Nebraska took a long time to learn English. In some cases, it took generations. However, some Americans today have little patience with immigrants' process of language-learning.
According to Todd Chessmore, Superintendent of the Lexington Public Schools, educational research shows it takes seven years to learn English well. Parents of immigrant children are less likely to learn English as quickly as their children. But, Chessmore said, Americans' wish that immigrants be fluent in English quickly is complicated. "What does it mean to be fluent?" Does it mean reading a menu? Speaking, writing and reading perfectly? Or some combination of those? Chessmore uses the term "biliterate" instead of "bilingual," because "biliterate" means speaking, reading and writing in two languages, while "bilingual" may mean only speaking in two languages. Chessmore is pleased with the language process of Lexington's students. The majority of the students are Latino, he said, and it is increasingly clear that those students will have the advantage in the job market in the future; they are already earning scholarships and winning awards for educational excellence. He is now making sure the white students learn Spanish well so they have the same opportunities as their Latino classmates.
Kyle McGowan, Superintendent of Schools in Crete, says the Crete schools start Spanish-language education in kindergarten. Crete's location just 20 miles from Lincoln increases the chances of finding bilingual teachers and other personnel. Dr. Gary Reynolds, Superintendent of Schools in Scottsbluff, would like to start Spanish-language education in kindergarten too, but finding Spanish teachers is a challenge in Nebraska's Panhandle.Racism? Education? Or Poverty?
Alex Moreno, Chief of Police in Scottsbluff, is of Mexican descent. He believes there is an element of racism today, but believes it is more likely to be a gap in education or income between whites and Latinos or between whites and any other ethnicity. Moreno said he sees a difference in the way professionals - like doctors and lawyers - are treated in comparison with agricultural workers who have less education and have lower incomes.
However, each Nebraska community is different in its ethnic makeup and in its ethnic history. Scottsbluff's ethnic mix has been part of the community's history for nearly 150 years, while the mix in Lexington has been only 18 years. Crete has worked with a variety of ethnicities since Farmland started operations there in 1975. Omaha was settled by a wide mix of ethnicities in the 1850s, so the city has always known differences.Law Enforcement, Public Safety
Local law enforcement agencies are not only charged with enforcing laws, but also with protecting and serving the residents of a community. Moreno said that local law enforcement agencies are being asked to participate in ICE raids nationwide, and he sees that involvement as a conflict in the "protect and serve" mission of law enforcement. The human rights aspect of immigration is ignored in these cases, he said; communities take it seriously when such raids break up families and mistreat people.
Moreno said one of the most difficult issues arises when a non-English-speaking person is accused, by a person who does speak English, of a crime he or she did not commit. Another is when a non-English speaking person is a victim of a crime (such as rape or domestic assault) perpetrated by an English-speaking person. That is when it is vital for a community to have bilingual law enforcement officers and other personnel who can translate for victims, in addition to those who have committed crimes. Moreno, who is bilingual, said he is frequently contacted to break down communication barriers to establish either innocence or guilt. America's judicial system assumes innocence until guilt is proven.
Eric Brown of Lexington believes anything can happen in any community, but points out that demographics indicate most crime in any segment of society is perpetrated by young men, regardless of their ethnicity. The immigrant workers are largely young men, so it would stand to reason that communities with a large population of young men would have more crime. Brown believes the crime in Lexington is relatively rare and minor in nature.Children-the Common Denominator of Nebraska's Future
"The common denominator of the whole immigration issue should be children," according to Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, Executive Director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation in Omaha. The children being educated through Nebraska's schools are the future of the state, and the efforts to keep them in Nebraska will determine the work force of the future.
Chuck Karpf of Scottsbluff said he believes Nebraska needs to develop a system of incentives so young people will stay in the state. His ideas range from giving people lower property taxes for a period of years, to paying for their educations should they agree to work in the state for several years.
John Harms, in his role as state senator in Nebraska's Unicameral, is spearheading long-range planning for Nebraska beginning in the 2009 legislative session. His focus on rural Nebraska will address many issues such as educating Nebraska's children for the future needs of the state and possibly developing programs to recruit and retain workers - not only Nebraska's own children, but also people from other countries and other parts of the United States.The Role of Religion
A church family has long been a way for newcomers to integrate into a community. Today, Lutheran Family Services and Catholic Social Services are two of the main religious organizations that help refugees integrate into new communities. The focus is on helping people to integrate quickly into America, but at the same time serving the various physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the newcomers, as well as the underserved of each community.
Lutheran Family Services nationwide is one of the largest organizations working with the needs of refugees who fled the political violence of Sudan and have resettled in the United States.
Most of today's immigrant population comes from predominantly Catholic countries, so the Catholic Church has significant involvement in serving the needs of both refugees and immigrants. Jim Cunningham, Executive Director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said the Catholic Church looks at immigration issues from a moral, human rights standpoint, as it has for centuries. The Church has developed and accepted five principles on migration:
- Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.
- Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.
- Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders (though more powerful economic nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows).
- Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection (by the global community).
- The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.
The Catholic Church in Nebraska is also in the process of developing a joint statement on immigration from the bishop in each of Nebraska's three dioceses, Cunningham said.
Opportunities for Nebraska, Volume Three: Food Scarcity is the third annual publication of Strategic Discussions for Nebraska, exploring the importance of University of Nebraska research on the way we live- and on the way the world lives. Read more>>
Opportunities for Nebraska, Volume Two: Energy, Climate and Sustainability is the second annual publication of Strategic Discussions for Nebraska that explores the impact and relevance of University of Nebraska research.
Watch and listen as experts tell the stories of research and innovation at the University of Nebraska- one of the top research universities in the United States. Read more>>
Opportunities for Nebraska is the first magazine in a series that showcases University of Nebraska-Lincoln research. The world population is expected to grow to nine billion by 2050 and this research will result in producing twice as much food with the same amount of land and water. Watch and listen as UNL experts tell the stories of research and innovation at one of the top research universities in the country!
Read More >>
UNL student researchers along with SDN conducted a major research project to study the ways Ord residents communicate about what is happening in the community.
Read More >>
Published in June 2009, Nebraska's Economic Future includes a summary of findings; stories based on individual interviews; summaries of community conversations; and articles written specifically for this magazine. The articles represent varied geographical perspectives as well as perspectives on various parts of the state's economy.
Read More >>
SDN published research on Immigration in Nebraska for the project's initial study in May 2008. We selected Scottsbluff, Lexington, Crete and Omaha and looked at the impact immigration has had on those communities.
Read More >>