Shrinking Birth Rate, Out-Migration Spell Need for Work Force

Discussion in Scottsbluff

Discussion in Scottsbluff

A conversation about Nebraska's immigration issues took place on May 14, 2008 in Scottsbluff. Those attending were: John Berge, Executive Director of The Foundation, Western Nebraska Community College; Steve Frederick, Editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald; Jerrod Haberman, Executive Director of the Panhandle Area Development District; Dr. John N. Harms, State Senator from District 48; Charles Karpf, Director of the Discovery Program at the John N. Harms Advanced Technology Center of Nebraska; Randy Meininger, Mayor of Scottsbluff; Alex Moreno, Scottsbluff Chief of Police; and Dr. Gary Reynolds, Superintendent of Scottsbluff Public Schools.

Immigration issues are different in the Panhandle than in much of the rest of Nebraska or the country, Strategic Discussions for Nebraska discovered during a conversation in Scottsbluff on May 14, 2008. The entire transcription is available here, download the transcript.

Strategic Discussions for Nebraska, a privately-funded research initiative in the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications, has summarized the main points of the May 14 discussion:

  • Latino families have lived in the Scottsbluff area for five generations and most are citizens;
  • Discussion participants would like to fix the immigration system so people can immigrate legally;
  • Nebraska's death rate exceeds its birth rate, so its native-born work force is declining;
  • Nebraska is fourth in the country in agricultural production; second in cattle production; and first nationally in commercial red meat processing, requiring a need for a large work force;
  • Out-migration of Nebraska's youth is a continuing issue for the state and contributes to the need for a work force;
  • In the next several years, many baby boomers will retire, leading to an even greater shortage of workers;
  • Per capita family income is lower in greater Nebraska than in Lincoln and Omaha;
  • Historically, Nebraska's European immigrants integrated slowly to America's language and culture;
  • Historically, Nebraska's European immigrants came to the United States under different and less stringent laws than are now in place;
  • The U.S. immigration system is broken and no one is fixing it;
  • Misconceptions about immigration are disseminated through the Internet, the blogosphere and the media;
  • Today's immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, are paying property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes and Social Security taxes and contributing billions of dollars to the nation's economy;
  • Deporting undocumented workers would have a crippling effect on Nebraska's economy, as well as the economy of the United States;
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids violate human rights and break up families;
    Undocumented individuals live in fear;
  • Non-English-speaking individuals face enormous obstacles in defending themselves if they are victims of crimes, and require bilingual police officers or staff to assist;
  • Workers, especially professionals and skilled workers, are difficult to find and even more difficult to recruit to greater Nebraska;
  • Employers should not employ undocumented individuals; to do so puts the employees in the position of being discovered and deported, thus breaking up families;
  • Discrimination in the Panhandle is likely discrimination against the poor rather than ethnicity or color;
  • It is difficult to recruit professionals in the medical and education sectors, in addition to other skilled workers, to the Panhandle;
  • A common, more respectful vocabulary must be instituted when referring to people from other countries;
  • If you're going to close the border with Mexico, close the border with Canada as well;
  • It will be difficult to create a program that undocumented people will trust that will allow them to become American citizens, as the U.S. immigration system has not fostered trust in the recent past;
  • The framers of the U.S. Constitution would probably not approve of the U.S. efforts to keep people out of the country.

The Panhandle area of western Nebraska is more sparsely-populated than eastern Nebraska. It fosters independence and frugality born of necessity, an understanding of the economy of the state and the region, a need to rely on other people and a strong commitment to human rights, whether a person is in the country legally or illegally. There are few agencies charged with specific responsibilities; community members generally take care of their own.

Religion is an integral part of daily life; there are more than 200 churches in the area, and community leaders work closely with churches to carry out social services, such as integrating new immigrants into communities and providing services to the poor. In some communities, church congregations are shouldering more and more community responsibilities, partly because there are few other organizations charged with addressing these needs and no available dollars to fund them. In Scottsbluff, Mayor Randy Meininger suggested that churches might even take a future role in reducing Medicaid.

Nebraska has been filling the gaps in the work force with workers from other countries, changing the face of many communities. Some studies indicate that 80 percent of the labor-intensive jobs in Nebraska are held by immigrant workers.

Many employers nationwide use a federal software program to determine whether a worker is in the country legally and refuse to hire applicants whose information doesn't match with the system, but use of the software program is optional for employers.

The Scottsbluff area has had a diverse population for more than 100 years and is often considered a model of immigrant integration. Most came to Scottsbluff legally; some didn't.

Key to the Future
"The key in Nebraska is finding the solution to immigration, because I think we're going to be at risk. That's our work force," said Dr. John Harms, State Senator from District 48 (Scotts Bluff County) and retired President of Western Nebraska Community College.

"If rural America is going to survive, we have to find a solution," he said, and added that the tragedy is that the federal government refuses to make a decision.

Personally, Harms believes the people who are here illegally should be deported, but that hard-working families who have proven to be contributing members of communities should be allowed to stay in this country legally. After that, the state should focus on educating children to ensure Nebraska's future, Harms said.

"Hispanics are the largest population base in our county, and maybe in the state. It's an education problem, but it's also a social issue," Harms said. First-generation immigrants may not realize how important the educational system will be to the future of their children, and may not offer the familial support necessary to ensure the children complete their educations.

Additionally, putting the hard-working families on a fast track to citizenship will be a publicity challenge, as the foundation has already been laid for mistrust of the system.

"People are now afraid to come forward," Harms said. "If we were to put together a program to allow them to become American citizens, I'm not sure they're going to trust us," he added.

"We've already convinced them we're going to send them back; I think this is one of the biggest issues," he said. Reaching out to those families and convincing them they're going to receive protection so they can go through such a program would be a challenge, he said.

Declining Births, Increasing Retirements: Impact on Labor
Issues related to illegal immigration are important, but longtime community residents believe the communities' economies rely on the additional workers that immigration supplies. Projections into the future of the region's labor force indicate there will be a shortage of about 5,000 workers by the year 2020, according to Jerrod Haberman, Executive Director of the Panhandle Area Development District. In that population base, 5,000 is a significant shortfall.

In spite of the high level of out-migration of the region's young adults in the last 50 years, the area has still had more people aging into the work force than have aged out of it, but that is no longer true, he said. Nearly one-fourth of the population of the area will be retiring by 2020, creating a critical need for workers.

"It's not only this region that's going to be losing its labor force, it's going to be the whole country losing people to retirement," Haberman said. "So not only do we have to figure out how to fill that gap, but we also have to compete with the rest of the country for that labor force - and that's something that immigration will play into."

Haberman said the region has always been able to find workers in the past, despite the challenge of out-migration. "But what's different now is the higher percentage of our labor force moving into retirement, and I don't think people realize the percentage of our population that represents," he said. "The numbers don't add up too well right now, without looking outside our state boundaries," Haberman added.

Societal Issues
Without immigration, "Nebraska would be perilously close to being a zero percent growth state, economically," according to John Berge, Executive Director of The Foundation at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff.

But the illegal immigration issue is huge, and includes what we do with people once they're here. Societal issues draw people to this country, and human rights violations, both in the person's home country and in the United States, affect both documented and undocumented workers. Berge said very poor people will risk everything to pursue a better life, and they are often victimized.

Berge said the state and the country should pay attention to human trafficking issues. "One of the questions we need to answer is 'how do we give these people equality before the law'? These are human beings. We talk about other countries not having human rights for their citizens, but I think there is a question of that here, as well," he said.

"We keep hearing 'let's enforce the laws they have on the books,' but the laws are being enforced to the best extent they can be, but they're not working," Berge said. The reason the laws aren't working is that the U.S. is not dealing with the societal issues that cause people to immigrate to the U.S. "We are the shining city on the hill' in this hemisphere, but we don't recognize that we need to do something hemispherically. We are going to continue to have people come here for a better life."

"Setting the Record Straight"
If the region supplements its labor force with workers from other countries, Steve Frederick believes a first step is setting the record straight concerning the contributions and impact of immigrant labor in the United States.

Frederick, editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, said "the big story is that 'oh, they send all their money overseas; they don't help the economy.'"

However, according to the American Institute for Economic Research (Oct. 2007), Frederick said, immigrants have contributed about a trillion and a half dollars to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Half of the U.S. labor force in the last 10-15 years has been immigrant workers. Half of agricultural and construction workers are immigrant labor, the report states.

"So, what's that going to do to the market to deport 12 million people?" Frederick asked. "You have to bring reality to the discussion," he said. If the undocumented workers were deported, law enforcement, legal fees and court time would add up to roughly $10,000 per worker to process all those deportations. "And it would leave three million children who are legally U.S. citizens," he said.

Recruiting and Reducing Out-Migration
Greater Nebraska has to find ways to reduce out-migration by identifying methods of retaining the people who live there and also by recruiting additional people to the area. The Panhandle, like much of greater Nebraska, needs medical, education and other professionals and additional skilled workers.

Haberman said it's important to look at those skilled professions and think seriously about who is going to fill those jobs if other Nebraskans don't want to move to the more rural areas of the state.

Dr. Gary Reynolds, Superintendent of the Scottsbluff Public Schools, agrees. "We simply don't have enough teachers, paraprofessionals or administrators who are bilingual. We don't even have people coming in to apply for jobs who are bilingual," he said. And to find someone to teach Spanish in the high school? "They're just not out there," he said.

Charles Karpf, Director of the Discovery Program at the John N. Harms Advanced Technology Center of Nebraska, believes there should be incentive programs to get people to come to greater Nebraska; perhaps lower taxes for a period of time, perhaps tuition forgiveness if someone agrees to work in greater Nebraska for a stated number of years.

Income is another issue in attracting and retaining employees in greater Nebraska; Karpf pointed out that people in greater Nebraska have lower average incomes than in other parts of Nebraska; it's difficult to compete when hiring people.

"Protect and Serve" - the Role of Law Enforcement
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on businesses that employ undocumented workers create a problem for local law enforcement agencies, said Alex Moreno, Scottsbluff Chief of Police. Local law enforcement agencies are not only responsible for enforcing local, state and federal laws, but they also take an oath to "protect and serve" people, he said.

"It's a huge challenge for us in the law enforcement community to have to enforce laws at the federal level," Moreno said. That responsibility not only stretches the limits of police forces in small communities, but also creates a personal conflict between enforcing laws and protecting people.

"I don't know whether I want that federal authorization to go out and pick up these individuals who live and work in our community," he said.

"We live in the community and those individuals who live in this community - documented or not - rely on public safety agencies like ourselves," he said, "and I think it will really hurt our community from the standpoint of deterring someone from wanting to report a crime." Moreno said an example might be a case in which an English-speaking husband with a non-English speaking wife makes a claim about abuse. Since the female is unable to communicate effectively, she becomes the target of an arrest or prosecution, Moreno said. "And that's just not right, and it's a huge problem, not only in public safety but in other areas of our communities," Moreno said.

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