It has been 23 years since Iowa Beef Processors opened a beef processing plant in Lexington, Neb. Twenty-three years since the town of Lexington had a population of just more than 7,000, mostly white residents. Twenty-three years since an influx of workers, mostly Latino, came to work at IBP (now Tyson Foods), growing the community to a population of 10,000-plus, a population younger than the Nebraska average. It is a community in which one is twice as likely to meet a Latino as a Caucasian, but likely, too, to meet someone from Africa or from Asia.
In 23 years, Lexington has changed.
Lexington is a success story.
A room full of people came to a roundtable discussion at Central Community College on Aug. 15, 2013, hosted by the Nebraska Coalition for Immigration Reform and Prairie Fire, to talk about today’s Lexington. They represented churches, schools, agriculture and government; they wanted to add their voices to the immigration debate and offer solutions based on their personal and collective realities.
Some of the concerns relate to the need for drivers’ licenses and good housing, and for better state understanding of the schools’ needs. Some of the successes relate to increased services, employment, education and faith communities, all of which add to the harmony, understanding and peace in this community.
Still, participants in the discussion told their own immigration experiences. Father Jorge Canela-Rodriguez, a priest at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Lexington, said he came to the U.S. with a tourist visa. When he decided to stay, he applied for a green card (which would allow him to work in the U.S.). The approval process took 17 years. He could go back and forth to his native Mexico, but he could not work—even though he had earned a master’s degree in the U.S.
Eustis resident Doug German said there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today; deporting those individuals is likely impossible.
“It has to be solved in a practical way,” German said.
Current U.S. immigration law is rooted in history, reacting to issues of the day. German calls the U.S. immigration law a “relic,” which is keeping tremendous talent from coming into the U.S.
“The immigration law is broken further than we are even talking about here,” German said.
The nation’s “archaic” immigration law was built on lawmakers hating other countries, said W. Don Nelson, publisher of Prairie Fire.
“It makes me ill when people say ‘folks should get in line.’ They don’t know that the ‘lines’ are 10, 20 years long,” Nelson added.
Jim Partington, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, recognizes that immigrant labor forms a backbone of this nation’s workforce.
“Sending [immigrants] back would be disastrous for the economy,” Partington said. The Baby Boom generation is retiring, leaving a gap in the workforce. A first step, he suggested, should be to give undocumented people legal status, bringing them out of the shadows. This would allow the U.S. to find out who actually is here. After that, the country can identify the undesirable individuals, rather than deporting everyone.
And divisive politics, some roundtable participants said, is keeping this country from achieving reform of immigration laws.
“The notion that we are going to get immigration reform out of this Congress is nil,” said Jim Jenkins, a rancher and restaurateur from Callaway, Neb.
Ana Maria Hermosillo said undocumented residents are paying the price of their status. They don’t see relatives, they do not have drivers’ licenses, they live in the shadows—and they often are abused because of their status.
“They leave their country to work here; they send money home for their children, but they do not get to see their children,” Hermosillo said. The financial cost of applying for legal status is beyond the reach of many immigrants and takes many years; scammers sometimes take thousands of dollars from trusting people, who are hopeful that scammers’ promises will lead to the documentation they desire.
Even though Lexington has gone through significant changes, German said that in the last 15 years he has seen people who started in low-income jobs integrate into the Lexington community.
“I have been amazed at how quickly they have become owners of businesses, involved in community organizations,” German said. They have become homeowners, too, he added.
Megan Morrow came to Lexington nine years ago to become pastor of Grace Lutheran Church. When she arrived, members of the congregation began to talk to her about the community. When IBP moved in, she was told, there were racial comments, people were fearful of change and fearful for their safety. But then, Pastor Morrow said, one man came up to her and told her that a lot of the mean people had left the community.
“To be honest, I think that’s true,” she said. “We battle negative public relations constantly, but it is an amazing community.”
The first part of Pastor Morrow’s ministry was in Bertrand in the 1990s, which was right after IBP opened in Lexington. She watched Lexington change during that time. People moved in, people moved out. The ones who committed to staying have worked hard to work together, she said, but added that people may not always know how to work together.
“I have been impressed with the spirit of the community, given the differences in understanding. It is hard enough to understand people who speak the same language, much less have different languages and cultures,” she said.
Pastor Morrow noted that the Lexington community now has a variety of faith organizations, including mosques for those of the Muslim faith. She would like to see increased communication across faiths with the goal of bridge building.
Father Paul Colling lives and works in Kearney as a vicar for Hispanic issues with the Grand Island Catholic Diocese; he has worked with the Hispanic community for 26 years. Ten years ago, he said, there was a meeting during which people clamored that “they should learn English.” But Lexington has come a long way toward more integration.
“It has been a combined effort between the business leaders, churches and schools,” Father Colling said. “There is a lot of goodwill here to make this work. It is a wonderful place to live.
“Lexington has life now. There is more brotherhood, more friendship. I am not talking about immigrants; I am talking about communities coming together. It is a lot of fun,” Father Rodriguez said.
Julie Myers is principal of Morton Elementary in Lexington, and said the Lexington Public Schools did an excellent job of preparing for the immigrants’ arrival.
“The current superintendent [John Hankonson] said the demographic matches the Los Angeles public schools,” Myers said. However, she added, “the Nebraska Department of Education doesn’t know what to do with Lexington. We are in the age of accountability. We face challenges no other district faces.”
Still, Myers said, Lexington schools are making great gains with time, work and research.
Nikki Edeal is principal at Sandoz Elementary in Lexington. She also is a parent of two children who attend Lexington schools. Both children are biliterate, meaning that they can speak, read and write in Spanish as well as in English, thanks to a program that teaches children in both English and Spanish.
“We struggle with how the state views our school. Unfortunately, the Department of Education looks at a percentile, not at the level the student is (upon arrival) and the growth they have,” Edeal said.
Myers said ELL (English Language Learners) has been a part of Lexington teachers’ lives for years. Once students have basic English proficiency, they are mainstreamed.
However, “some of our schools are on the persistently low-achieving list,” Edeal said. “The state wants to improve our achievement levels, so one day, a person from the state [Nebraska Department of Education] came out and took notes and said, ‘Oh, you do have a very diverse population here.’ People who don’t live in Lexington have a negative view of the schools and the city. The view is different when you live here.”
Higher education is a focus in the Lexington Public Schools.
The University of Nebraska-Kearney provides complete tuition assistance for 30 students annually in a program called Kearney Bound. Kearney Bound selects 10 students every year from Lexington, North Platte and Kearney. Each of those 30 scholarship recipients must have met specific criteria through high school. They start at UNK as freshmen and must qualify each year for the scholarship to continue, Myers said.
Many graduates of Lexington Public Schools have gone on to earn teaching degrees and have returned to Lexington to teach. Many of those alums mirror the current Lexington school population.
Ten years ago, no attorney in Lexington specialized in immigration law.
“That was a worry,” Hermosillo said. Deportment and the possibility of being separated from one’s children sent immigrants to Omaha to seek legal advice. Now, there are community legal services in Lexington. If something happens, people know where to go to get the right advice. People are not scammed any more, she said, which used to be the case.
“One of the things that impressed me when I moved to Lex in 2001 was the commitment to serve,” Hermosillo said. “When I needed the resources as a newcomer, I was well guided as to where to go,” Hermosillo said.
Pastor Morrow said it is important to understand the work that people do and have the knowledge of the benefits that people are entitled to receive, but have never had the advice and direction to services in a safe and reliable way.
“We are all human beings. There has to be a sense of value and worth that drives this beyond sheer economics,” Pastor Morrow said.