Unwelcome Strangers? Nebraskans' Reaction to Undocumented Immigration
German citizen Sascha Krannich was an exchange student at Hastings College two years ago, and wrote his Master’s thesis about undocumented immigration to Nebraska. Now he is doing research for his PhD. in Mexico. He offers a European perspective on the immigration issues facing our state.
Immigration, both documented and undocumented, is on the rise in Nebraska, one of the New Immigration States in the U.S. It’s an issue and a problem that both Nebraskan citizens and their political representatives will have to continue to confront. Although the state policy has been lenient, it is now trending toward restrictive. How does Nebraska want to be represented in a national perspective: as a pioneer of hospitality, or as a closed door to those seeking opportunity? The impact of the private sector in this political debate is substantial, both through its role in forming public opinion and its lobbying influence in legislative process. In any event, the working conditions of immigrants without the legal status to exercise their rights—and the disruption caused by deportations—demand a review of current policy.
Nebraska as a New Immigration State
While Nebraska only has a foreign population of 5.5 percent, the rate of immigration in the state has been growing rapidly to where it now ranks seventh in the nation. From 2000 to 2006, the foreign population increased by 34 percent in Nebraska, whereas the U.S. average growth was only by 16 percent (U.S. Census Bureau 2006). About 97,000 documented and 35,000-55,000 undocumented immigrants live in the state (Pew Hispanic Center 2009). Due to the fact that the major proportion of undocumented immigrants is from Mexico and Central America, the public immigration discussion tends to focus predominantly on undocumented Latin Americans, with the state legislature on record for debating some lawful actions in handling undocumented immigration. Generally speaking, however, Nebraskans have yet to come to terms with their status as ‘new immigration state.’
Nebraska's Immigration Policy
Overall, the body of immigration-related legislation considered by Nebraska’s state senate is not large, but in the past decade there has been a noticeable shift toward more restrictive immigration legislative initiatives from the earlier more immigration-friendly proposals. Take, for example, the Meatpacking Workers’ Bill of Rights, adopted in 2000, which at the very least sought to provide some advocacy for the working conditions of immigrants employed in this industry. Other important acts which favourably affected undocumented immigrants were LB 1363, passed in 2000, and the Non-English Speaking Workers Protection Act, passed in 2003. LB 1363 established a task force to develop integration programs in Nebraska communities with the goal of creating a more bilingual working environment for immigrants. The most important bill, though, was probably the Nebraska DREAM Act of 2006, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. Over the past three years, however, legislative sentiment has indeed shifted toward a more restrictive policy.
In 2008 Legislative Session, restrictive immigration proposals still could not find majority support in the Nebraska Legislature. But by January 2009, after term limits had ousted almost half of the body’s incumbent senators, seven bills were introduced that would mainly affect the social environment and labor markets for immigrants and their families. By the end of the 2009 Session, three of the seven bills had been passed, two have been killed, and two were laid over until the senators reconvened in 2010.
Of these bills, probably LB 403, which was passed in May 2009 is was the most restricted. Introduced by Sen. Russ Karpisek, the bill requires that applicants possess legitimate verification of their immigration documents in order to receive public social benefits. LB 95, introduced by Sen. Gwen Howard, prohibited undocumented immigrants from obtaining public tax incentives, and was deferred indefinitely. The bill, according to experts, is unlikely to be reconsidered in the shorter 2010 Session.
The Role of Immigration Groups
These new legislative proposals have in turn prompted immigrant rights advocates, academics and even members of the business community to oppose these restrictive legislative proposals.
Immigration advocacy organizations, such as Nebraska Appleseed, Nebraskans for Peace and the Juan Diego Center Omaha, and social scientists, such as Lourdes Gouveia, have criticized the legislative proposals because the new policies would fundamentally restrict the basic rights of undocumented immigrants. These pro-immigrant groups are jointly organizing to oppose this restrictive legislation, just as in the past they came together to lobby for the passage of the Meatpacking Workers’ Bill of Rights and the Dream Act.
By contrast, these restrictive legislative proposals have the active support of anti-immigration groups, such as the Nebraska Minuteman. As these groups view the situation, employers prefer to employ undocumented immigrants (who because they have no rights tend to be more tractable employees), thereby reducing the available jobs for legal residents. Furthermore, undocumented immigrants are reputed to burden the social system and the state budget. The official mission statement of the Minuteman outlines their profound social and political aversion against undocumented immigrants:
“It is the mission of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to see the borders and coastal boundaries of the United States secured against the unlawful and unauthorized entry of all individuals, contraband, and foreign military. We will employ all means of civil protest, demonstration, and political lobbying to accomplish this goal.” (Minuteman Civil Defense Corps 2005).
The Minutemen find support for their call for a more restrictive immigration policy in public opinion surveys of the domestic population in Nebraska, who it appears is predominantly negative regarding undocumented immigrants.
Nebraska's Public Opinion about Undocumented Immigrants
According to a 2006 poll conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 56 percent of Nebraska’s rural population perceive Latin immigration to Nebraska as a negative process. On the other hand, only 15 percent view the rising immigration from Latin America as a positive development. Approximately 30 percent don’t care about immigration issues. Further, there appear to be only marginal differences in opinion between rural and urban populations. The survey project, By the People, taken in Nebraska’s biggest city of Omaha, achieved similar results. On average, 60-70 percent of the people of Nebraska prefer the implementation of restrictive policy instruments—such as employer sanctions, no access to the public social system and public educational institutions, or tougher law enforcement—to regulate undocumented immigration.
Nebraska's Immigration Policy in a National Comparison
Other New Immigration States, which have similar high increases of undocumented immigration like Nebraska, have utilized various means to address the situation. Georgia and South Carolina, for instance, have disallowed undocumented students from paying in-state tuition. Arizona and Oklahoma have implemented a restrictive immigration policy on the labor market. Both states passed immigration bills which penalize employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. In 2007, the enacting of the Legal Arizona Workers Act led to a decline in school registration and an increase in move-outs from rented apartments among the Latin American population. Some counties of Oklahoma saw the uprooting of 15,000-25,000 undocumented immigrants. The states of Colorado, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia have also legally stipulated some form of employer sanctions for the hiring of undocumented workers. In contrast, employer sanctions, as an instrument regulating immigration, were rejected after lengthy debates in the legislatures of Idaho, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wisconsin. And only the states governments of Arizona and Mississippi have managed to implement the controversial implementation of the E-Verify System for all employers.
In matters of publicly supported social benefits, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma have all chosen a restrictive approach. Undocumented immigrants in these states are not allowed to receive public benefits. As the policy responses in these selected states demonstrate, the State of Nebraska could be reacting in an even harsher way than it already does. To date, the Nebraska Unicameral has not passed either an employer sanctions bill or a bill disallowing undocumented workers from paying in-state tuition. But as mentioned, the Legislature is clearly on the path of a restrictive immigration policy.
The reality of about 12 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. shows that harsher immigration restrictions are probably a counter-productive course of action. Further, the comparison with other states points to the fact that there is no uniform answer to the problem of undocumented immigration.
Why is Undocumented Immigration Actually a Problem?
One could answer that question in many different ways and from many perspectives. From the vantage point of Mexican migrants alone, there are plenty of reasons. Every year, about 350 migrants die in attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexican border ‘illegally.’ In the years of 2006 and 2007, the number of deaths totaled nearly 450 migrants. Should they reach their destination, they work in factories and farms under very unhealthy conditions and very low wages—such as the meatpacking factories in Lexington and Grand Island.
Pro-immigration groups criticize companies which offer such low-paying jobs, arguing that they create a permanently undocumented lower class, which has to fear arrest and deportation. The economic phenomenon can also have a negative impact on domestic employees. A huge influx of undocumented workers on the labor market could cause a reduction of the hourly wage and a cutback of benefits. Undocumented workers get no opportunities to articulate and achieve their interests in labor unions or other democratic forums, such as political elections. For the U.S. federal government (as well as the respective states), undocumented immigration seems to be a problem that defies control. Is there a possibility of actually solving this problem?
Conclusion: The Need to Stop Restrictive Immigration Policy
Basically, immigration policies are made ‘behind gilded doors.’ Whether Nebraska ends up adopting a restrictive or an expansive immigration policy depends largely on how well pro-immigration groups can reach policymakers on the other side of those doors. It could well be that the Nebraska will develop into a restrictive ‘New Immigration State’ like Georgia; it’s hard to tell. But what we do know that is that a restrictive immigration policy does not solve any of the aforementioned problems of undocumented immigration.
While Nebraska cannot solve the problem that ‘the wall of death at the Rio Grande’ poses for undocumented immigrants at the border, the Legislature could guarantee that no Nebraska resident, documented or undocumented, should be denied access to social and educational benefits while residing within the state. Nebraska could thereby be a positive example of humane interaction with new strangers to the country that other states could emulate.
However, it is important to remember that immigration problems cannot be solved just on the state level. The federal government too can and must take action to eliminate undocumented immigration. The legalization of about 12 million undocumented immigrants—and the opening of the U.S. border to Mexico—would be fundamental steps toward and a more enlightened policy. The European Union’ ‘open borders’ could serve as a positive example for these two NAFTA partners. As there is in the European Union, there should be within NAFTA not only a free circulation of goods and capitals, but also of persons. A freedom of movement and residence for all citizens of the NAFTA countries would be in the interest of their governments, their economies and their civil societies. It would also solve the most fundamental problem: No mas muertes en la frontera! (No more deaths at the frontier). Thereby, the ‘wall of death at the Rio Grande’ can finally disappear, and families and friends can be lawfully reunited legally, nationally and also in Nebraska.
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