In 2007 a gift from the Robert and Ardis James Family Foundation started Strategic Discussions for Nebraska, a program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 2008 “Immigration in Nebraska” was published. It was a publication about immigration in the state, from Scottsbluff to Omaha, and Lexington and Crete in between. The publication was included in its entirety in the Nebraska Unicameral Judiciary Committee’s study on immigration a year later. Another gift from the Robert and Ardis James Family Foundation is allowing Prairie Fire to publish “Immigration in Nebraska, Part Two.” Following is an essay about Norfolk, Neb., based on a June 13, 2013 conversation in that city, which was attended by 20 individuals who conversed about the community, religion, immigration reform and the similarities between us all.
It’s a mutual benefit.
Nebraska’s immigrant population keeps the state’s economy rolling, while many immigrants themselves have escaped poverty in their home countries. People came to Nebraska because there were jobs available, and they stayed for the good life.
Chuck Folken, a member of the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Immigration Task Force, said one of the reasons the task force was started was the need for a stable workforce in the livestock industry and the need to work out problems so workers could stay longer in the U.S.
Nebraska ranks first nationally in commercial red meat production, and it takes a great many workers to keep that national ranking. Folken is a third-generation farmer and cattle producer in Leigh, Neb., raising thousands of cattle and growing their feed. He noted that not only are thousands of cattle produced in northeast Nebraska, there also are thousands of hogs, animal feed and thousands of gallons of milk produced.
“Agriculture has been a dirty word in some parts of the U.S., but we are the heart of the breadbasket of the world,” he said.
Folken understands that it is easier to keep skilled, trained workers than to continually train new people. He has trained workers to use the technology his farming and cattle production operation requires.
Folken said when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) conducted a raid on the Swift plant in Grand Island, it was nearly Christmas in 2006. Folken became involved with the issue.
“People tell me I have been brave, but I have had a lot of personal grief over it,” he said. The federal raid was intended to arrest people who were in the U.S. without proper documentation. Fathers and mothers were taken away during the raid, leaving children in Grand Island without one or both of their parents.
That’s when Folken became involved with the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Immigration Task Force.
About the Norfolk area
Norfolk is a community of more than 24,000 in northeast Nebraska. The area was settled by German Lutherans in the mid-1800s who wanted to farm that productive land. The community achieved Hollywood fame as the boyhood home of television host and comedian Johnny Carson.
Today Norfolk is a diverse community that features dozens of eateries and places to stay, work and play. There are many schools, including public, Lutheran, Catholic and Christian, as well as Northeast Community College. It is one of the larger communities in that part of the state, though there are many smaller.
Nearby Madison, Neb. (population 2,400) has a Tyson Fresh Meats pork processing plant that employs 1,200 people. Many of the attendees at the June 13 Prairie Fire Norfolk roundtable discussion were attracted to the area by the jobs at that plant, then moved on to other jobs that were not so physically hard. Jobs in banking, education, industry and community support services. Many have started small businesses.
Norfolk is “a slice of the good life,” said Letitia Rodriguez, who works with the Nebraska Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program.
Juan Sandoval joined the Center for Rural Affairs staff in 2010 as the director of the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) Hispanic Business Center. Sandoval, who is from Venezuela, has degrees in modern languages and in administration, with a minor in marketing. He worked in a Norfolk bank before joining REAP. Norfolk is an extraordinarily welcoming and generous community, he said, providing items to people in need. At a Christmas program, he said, there were rooms filled with people and with gifts.
“Ordinary people, giving to people they don’t know,” Sandoval said. “It’s very positive.”
Sandoval noted that some social media messages have been negative about communities with significant populations of Latinos.
“We are losing people because of what is posted on social media,” he said. Communities need workers, and the families that move there provide the youth and energy necessary for community survival. In the next few years, many people will be retiring in the agricultural sector, as well as in other businesses. Latinos are interested in farming, as well as in opening businesses.
Mary Doyle, the chair of the Madison County Democratic Party, said there is a whole different culture now in Norfolk. Addressing the Latinos in attendance at the Prairie Fire roundtable discussion, she said “you have people in the legislature passing laws that are directed toward each of you. If someone were doing something bad to me, I’d want to get up and fight about it, but everybody here is so happy.”
Sarah Pillen’s family owns a large hog operation in northeast Nebraska. She said the Nebraska legislature has to be told they can’t wait for the federal government to change immigration laws; it is important that they be proactive and engaged in the process. Low-population states like Nebraska need a workforce.
“Liberty and justice for all,” said Letitia Rodriguez, who works with the Migrant Education Program through the Nebraska Department of Education.
She said rural areas may not be the most attractive places for many people to move, but people there are going to retire and their jobs will be available.
“We want to give the opportunities to people who want to do the jobs. Playing video games is not going to feed our nation,” she added.
Laws must be changed so there can be a stable workforce that produces food for a hungry world.
José Hernandez is a Spanish teacher with the Norfolk Public Schools. As an educator, any time students can be exposed to a different culture is a good thing, he said. Hernandez said there are challenges facing students who want to better themselves through higher education.
“These kids are so bright. We have to trust and believe in our students,” Hernandez said. Education—not just high school students, but all ages of people—is necessary to change public opinion about Latinos, about immigration reform. Many Latinos have lived in the U.S. their entire lives, he said.
“Don’t call a three-year-old ‘illegal,’” Hernandez said. “We need to educate people so we can change that.”
Hernandez said if students are not citizens or legal residents, they have to quit school because they can’t get scholarships or financial aid. Their parents can hardly afford to feed them, much less pay for college, he added. It’s difficult to reliably get to jobs because they can’t drive; Nebraska is one of two states in the U.S. that does not allow an undocumented individual to get a driver’s license.
Students dream of being doctors or other professionals, Hernandez said, but they can’t continue their educations without a Social Security number, which they can’t get without documentation. That’s where we need to start in finding solutions, he said.
“Where we lack is in legal matters. It’s not a problem with being welcomed; I have always been welcomed, even though I didn’t speak English for about three years. Sometimes people have their hands tied,” Hernandez said.
Karen Indra works with people 30 and older who want to earn a GED (General Educational Development) diploma. One of her students works a 10-hour shift, then takes English classes two nights a week. They want to learn, she said.
Ted Myers, who is an adviser at Northeast Community College, works with international students. The numbers are growing, he said. But there is a difference between students who have visas and who are undocumented; the visa students do not struggle culturally and have self-confidence, which allows them to do well in class. The undocumented students end up doing well, but they sometimes lack confidence, which affects their educational journey.
“The biggest value to immigration reform is the humanity side of it,” Myers said. “We need a temporary status or something.”
Maria Gonzalez is a recruiter with Northeast Community College; she never knew what it was like to be undocumented. She grew up in South Sioux City, Neb., where about 45 percent of the population identifies itself as Latino. But she understands.
“The process isn’t complete,” Gonzalez said.
Eventually, things have to change; people have to communicate, Rodriguez said. Communication is essential when it comes to new residents who come from different cultures. For example, in the U.S., people pay for medical services, but in many other countries, it is different. Communicating to new residents can help them adapt, help them understand the differences.
Community involvement, including representation on community boards, is important.
“Don’t leave us out,” said Maritza Andrade, who is minority health coordinator with the Elkhorn-Logan Valley Public Health Department. “If you don’t invite me, I don’t know to come.”