Immigration: the Pivot Point was 9/11

Omaha, Nebraska
Congressman Lee Terry

Second District U.S. Congressman Lee Terry knows a lot about the immigration issues in the United States, in Nebraska and in Omaha. He hears the national debates on the floor of the U.S. Congress, and he hears firsthand stories from people who visit his Omaha office.

He realizes the issues aren't simple, and the solutions aren't, either.

"We help a lot of immigrants from this office, and we see them from Russia, from Ireland, Bosnia, Croatia, from Serbia, from Africa," he said. Most people focus on the people from Mexico and Central America, "but the reality is that they're from all over."

"The discussion tends to focus on the Hispanics because that's where the bigger population has come from illegally," Congressman Terry said. They came to the United States for jobs during a time when the U.S. needed labor, "and there was a prevailing thought that well, 'let them come across and work for awhile; we need the labor, and we'll just kind of do a wink and a nod as to the legality.'"

Then the economy slowed, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 created a concern about whether the border should be open. And people thought it was not a good policy and became upset with Congress and leaders who allowed that to occur "and they wanted a fix to it," he said.

"My perspective, coming into Congress in 1999...there is a 180-degree turn on immigration pre-to-post 9/11, that was the pivot point.

"My perspective, coming into Congress in 1999...there is a 180-degree turn on immigration pre-to-post 9/11," he said. "That was the pivot point."

Before 9/11, Congressman Terry said, immigration provisions were revised and approved overwhelmingly in Congress. "I got no letters; talk radio didn't talk about it. We passed the legislation something like 400 to 30," he said.

After 9/11, people became afraid of everything. They wanted to be sure that if someone was coming into this country, that we knew who they were, he said. Immigration legislation became more contentious; rhetoric became fiery. "If you remember, post-9/11 there was a big voice out there - a loud voice - saying 'stop everyone from coming here. Don't even let Europeans vacation here,'" he said.

Fear and other factors led to the reorganization of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS became the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and an enforcement arm was created and named United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (USICE). Both entities are under the Department of Homeland Security.

"We tried to fix the system. We merged offices; we put them under Homeland Security, we changed their titles, and it went from very bad to worse, in my view," Congressman Terry said.

He believes the organizations are understaffed, but also mismanaged and unfocused. "I think it can be fixed, but I think it will get bogged down in politics," he said. "But then, it already is."

Immigration issues may have been further inflamed by media coverage, he said. "I think they help elevate the emotional aspects of the debate as opposed to putting the issue out there and actually walking people through," he said. "Even in Omaha we have talk-show guys who are very, very anti-immigration, and I think it inflames the issue to the point that it becomes difficult to discuss the facts and issues."

Phone calls his office receives come from all segments of the 2nd Congressional District, but many calls come from older people who have worked as laborers. "I think what they see is that if we have an open immigration policy, they're the ones who are going to be displaced...lose their jobs, or drive down their wage." Another large percentage of calls come from older folks who say "we are a nation of laws; enforce them," he said.

Congressman Terry spends a lot of time in town hall and individual meetings in all segments of the 2nd Congressional District, and finds the discussions are open and honest. In meetings in the Hispanic community, he said, they'll say they know the U.S. has a right to secure its border, but they want it to be humane.

Not all meeting participants are positive. "I had one guy at a meeting saying the best way to secure our border is to get the army shoulder to shoulder with their guns pointing forward," he said. "And the Hispanic community hears that, and says 'does border security mean you're going to shoot us?' And so we have to work through some of those things," he said.

Omaha has always had a lot of ethnic diversity. "I think one of the neat things about Omaha is the ethnicities we've had from all over the world, and I think that's made us a stronger city," Congressman Terry said.

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