States are defined by the people who live there.
For Nebraska, this can refer to Midwestern moms and grain farmers who have lived in the state their entire lives, but it also means the people who left their previous homes to dwell here. Like many other states, Nebraska is home to a growing immigrant population, many of whom come from Central or South American countries. The number of Hispanics living in Nebraska is expected to increase threefold in the next 30 years. However, despite their status as a mainstay, Nebraska’s treatment of its largest minority population is often both cruel and negligent.
On top of a lengthy immigration process for entry into the United States, restrictions placed on immigrants make life in the country difficult to navigate. To further restrict these immigrants, institutions across the state and country criminalize and punish the actions immigrants are forced to carry out to provide for themselves and their families. Although the immigration policies currently in place were established by the federal government, Nebraska’s treatment of immigrants perpetuates the unjustness set by the country as a whole.
This difficulty for Hispanic immigrants in the state of Nebraska is apparent in various contexts, such as foster care policies. For example, Nebraska’s Bridge to Independence program, an initiative to assist former foster care children in transitioning to adulthood, normally allows foster children to keep medical benefits and receive other social services until they are 21. Late last week however, a Nebraska judge denied three 19-year-old Guatemalan immigrants extended foster care on account of their immigration status. They will be allowed to stay in the country, but will not be provided medical care, among other services simply because of their immigration status. They are still permitted to apply for a green card, a process that could take years to complete.
Nebraska’s legislature thinks it’s being merciful by not returning foster children to their home countries, allowing them to continue escaping persecution; however, there is nothing merciful about withholding services that should be a fundamental human right simply because of immigration status. These boys may be safe from bodily harm, but they are not being cared for the way a native Nebraskan would be cared for. Moreover, the ruling against their continued support was made on the grounds that they are illegal immigrants. This is completely unjust, as they were brought to the U.S. by their parents, not by their own accord. Their illegal entrance to the country was not voluntary and they should not be held accountable for the actions of their parents.
This same pattern of withholding necessary services is also reflected in a city ordinance recently passed by voters in Scribner, Nebraska. The ordinance requires immigrants to prove their citizenship before renting housing in the community and for employers to verify the migratory status of their prospective employees. This ensures not only that undocumented immigrants are unable to live and work in the town, but also that legal immigrants are given further barriers to obtaining these necessities.
While voters may see this as fitting punishment for people who have entered the country illegally, it further criminalizes and harms people simply looking for a better life. Not only this, but ACLU Nebraska states the ordinance risks encouraging racial profiling and discrimination. This and ordinances like it in places like Fremont make it difficult for immigrants to feel welcome, something that is directly against Nebraska’s identity as a kind and welcoming state.
This new ordinance is demonstrative of both the U.S. and Nebraska governments’ disregard for the humanity of immigrants. This problem was exemplified back in August, when a potato processing and tomato greenhouse in O’Neill, Nebraska was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on account of a suspected labor exploitation conspiracy. The raid resulted in the arrests of 100 immigrant workers and the separation of 50-100 children from their family members. Save for a select few, all of the people arrested by ICE were placed on the road to removal from the U.S., despite the fact that they were the ones being exploited by their employers.
In both the case of the ICE raid and the law in Scribner, disregarding the needs of immigrants to have access to a better life in the U.S. and Nebraska criminalizes and disenfranchises both legal and illegal immigrants. This despite the fact that it is unlikely that they could simply walk up to any old establishment and obtain employment to put food on the table for their children. These immigrants are not afforded the luxury of easy living or secure work environments, and treating vulnerable people as criminals simply for wanting a better life for their families is both misguided and cruel, especially because the current immigration process makes it incredibly difficult for struggling families to make a life in the U.S. through any other means.
This is not to say Nebraska’s citizens are not making strides towards a more tolerant environment for immigrants. Nebraskans, such as those in Scribner, are making their opposition to these practices known via peaceful protest. In Lincoln, refugee programs are gaining traction. One such program is Lincoln Literacy, an organization offering services such teaching English to immigrant populations, as well as Lutheran Family Services’ Refugee Support Program, which provides resources regarding services like housing and medical care. Not only this, but Nebraska has become home to many immigrant and refugee groups, such as Yazidis, an ethnic minority driven from Iraq that has now settled in large numbers in Lincoln. This is what should define Nebraska’s treatment of immigrant populations, not discriminatory laws and ordinances.
The state of Nebraska prides itself on its kindness and Midwest mentality. This identity would be best served by being welcoming of other cultures and people, not by making life impossible for them in the state. Immigrants, particularly those of Hispanic descent, are clearly here to stay. If Nebraska is truly committed to being a state that accepts all, legislators would do well to provide immigrants the tools to advance in society rather than further restricting them from achieving a better life.