Immigration issues have become heated and contentious in recent years, and some Nebraskans say those issues have been further fueled by national news and talk shows, media input and intense coverage of outspoken people who don't represent the views of the majority. As a result, people may make snap judgments about immigrants without knowing all the facts.
And the facts indicate that in the communities with large immigrant populations, work is hard, problems few and acceptance high. Communities are working together to make good lives for all residents, despite what people read and hear and despite the perceptions of these communities by outsiders. Negativity stems from the few, not the majority - but change is hard and the fear of the unknown is widespread.
"These talk shows quote things, and if you repeat them enough times, people accept them as facts.
"These talk shows quote things, and if you repeat them enough times, people accept them as facts," said a Nebraska employer who elected to remain anonymous. His company employs several hundred workers, about 80 percent of whom are Hispanic. He doesn't know where he'd get workers otherwise, especially the reliable, loyal workers he's found in the Hispanics.
Another concern is that the media seems to lump all non-native-speakers into the same category, according to Christine Kutschkau, State Refugee Program Coordinator in the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. In fact, there is a huge difference between immigrants and refugees. Immigrants leave their home countries voluntarily in search of a better life, she said, while refugees are unable or unwilling to return to their home countries because they fear persecution. Because the media doesn't educate the public, myths and stereotypes prevail, she said.
"We have just fed into myths and fears, and it's happened on the national front," said Todd Chessmore, Superintendent of the Lexington Public Schools. "This fear of people taking over our jobs...well, there aren't enough people to take over our jobs because we don't have enough kids following up behind us," he said.
States with small populations face challenges in attracting workers, especially the large number of workers required to keep large companies in operation. For example, depending on their size, meatpacking plants may employ up to 2,500 workers and locate in small communities. While a boon to the economy of the community, small towns can't provide the number of workers needed, and a powerful communication grapevine informs would-be workers of the availability of jobs in a specific community.
Crete, a community of about 6,000 and located 25 miles south of Lincoln, is home to a Farmland pork processing plant that employs 1,800 people. Tom Crisman, Mayor of Crete and a longtime Farmland employee, noted that many ethnicities work in the plant; 17 languages are spoken there, and you don't see problems between the ethnicities. Farmland draws its work force from a wide geographic area, Crisman said, in order to get enough employees.
Is there any truth to the axiom that immigrant workers take jobs Americans won't take? Yes, according to Eric Brown, General Manager of KRVN Radio in Lexington. Lexington has a population of 11,000 and is home to a Tyson Fresh Meats beef processing plant that employees about 2,400 workers. "A few (Lexington residents) did try it out, but very few of the assembly line folks stayed. It's tough work. They find something easier," he said, but noted that some of the middle management folks from Lexington did stay with Tyson.
The diverse work force is so valuable to Greater Omaha Packing Co. of Omaha that the company has built an addition to the facility for the sole purpose of serving the education needs of the work force, according to Angelo Fili, GOP Plant Manager. The workers take English classes, learn about America, Nebraska and Omaha culture, learn basic business practices such as banking, buying a car or a home and where to access medical services. And they take citizenship classes there, Fili said. The company arranges for people to teach whatever the employees want to learn, he said.
Immigration in Scottsbluff "has made us what we are," says Hod Kosman, Chairman, President and CEO of the Platte Valley National Bank in Scottsbluff. "We've been assimilating immigrant workers since 1920." Scottsbluff employed migrant workers to help in the potato and sugar beet fields in those early years, and many of them stayed. "It has been an evolution for us," he said. "Most immigrants who come here want to do well." That doesn't mean Scottsbluff is free of issues related to acculturation and education, but the community leaders are proactive in moving the community forward, in spite of a conservative population that generally resists tax increases to fund programs or brick and mortar.
Scottsbluff actively recruits workers and trains them for skilled positions. The John Harms Advanced Technology Center (HATC) of Nebraska is part of the Scottsbluff campus of Western Nebraska Community College (WNCC). The WNCC also partners with Cabela's to provide training to Cabela's employees. Cabela's headquarters is in Sidney, 78 miles southeast of Scottsbluff.
"Whatever people see on television, whatever they look at in headlines IS how people learn about immigration," said Dr. John Harms of Scottsbluff, retired President of Western Nebraska Community College, now a state senator from District 48 in the Nebraska Unicameral, for whom the Harms Center was named. Education is the key to understanding immigration and immigrants, and talk shows and other media coverage isn't offering the depth of education needed for understanding and acceptance. And that concerns him, because recruiting, training and retaining people in small communities is key to keeping communities alive.
From the state media perspective, Nebraska daily and weekly newspapers try to serve the diverse population in many ways -- by translating the paper into Spanish, by covering events, by walking the town asking for input. But short staffing and funding issues often limit their ability to adequately cover the subscription area, and cultural barriers prevent the diverse population from full participation in such efforts.
And sometimes the state's journalists "encounter intense polarization and closed-mindedness," according to Steve Frederick, editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. "Some people are resolutely unreachable with facts, which makes it hard to present something as simple as a school bond measure without encountering a lot of damaging contrarian mythology about taxes, teachers, administrator salaries and having to spend a lot of effort debunking outright lies," he said. "Where this becomes most damaging is in an issue such as immigration, where many people equate immigrants with Hispanics, and don't differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants."
And the solution, Frederick said, is to spend less time getting pulled into squabbles and more time emphasizing our common humanity.
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