Standing With Immigrants in Nebraska

Standing With Immigrants in Nebraska

State senators on the floor of the legislature giving a standing ovation to DACA youth after a 2016 vote granting them the right to obtain professional licenses (Nebraska Appleseed)

Donald Trump won the presidency, in part, by exploiting xenophobic anxieties and portraying immigrants and refugees as “bad dudes”: rapists, drug dealers, and terrorists. Since taking office his rhetoric and policies have sought to punish them—by increasing the number of agents in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (or ICE) and the Border Patrol, expanding the number of raids on the undocumented, and trying to speed up deportations of detainees. The result, in communities where immigrants and their children live, has been an intense rise in alarm and anxiety. People wonder what will happen to children if their parents are picked up, and any interaction with nativists is fraught with potential for disaster.

Many states have been transformed by immigration in recent decades, but some are better prepared than others to cope with the crisis. Take my home state of Nebraska. A solidly red state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in more than half a century, Nebraska has nonetheless seen the flowering of a pro-immigrant political culture. Over the past six years, activists across the state built a coalition that has made it possible to confront the harsh words and actions of the Trump administration head on. Examining what they did and how they did it can offer lessons for activists beyond the Great Plains.

Immigrants now make up about 7 percent of Nebraska’s population, over three times the percentage in 1990. And their impact is much greater than that statistic suggests. Over the past quarter of a century, the meatpacking industry relocated aggressively to small towns across parts of the Midwest and Southeast to escape unions and the higher wages that accompanied them. The mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants who work in the packing plants are a vital part of several Nebraska towns. They and their children represent 70 percent of six thousand or so people who live in Schuyler, seventy miles west of Omaha. They are a smaller but still significant population in such places as Nebraska City, Fremont, Lexington, Grand Island, and Crete, which were once exclusively inhabited by Europeans and, before them, Native Americans. Their communities cannot be eliminated, since they include growing numbers of U.S. citizens. But they have been profoundly shaken and destabilized by new fears of detention and deportation.

Fortunately, in Nebraska, activists built a strong coalition and convinced a majority of Nebraskans that immigrants make positive contributions as workers, neighbors, and students. At the heart of the coalition are organizations like the Heartland Workers Center in South Omaha, Nebraska Appleseed, and the Nebraska branch of Justice for Our Neighbors. They are joined by dozens of other organizations, from interfaith groups like Lutheran Family Services to the Nebraska Cattlemen, the Center for Rural Affairs, and leaders in education and religion. Local Latino organizations are part of the coalition as well.

Mobilizing support for young immigrants has been key to this growing consensus. As Darcy Tromanhauser, Immigrants and Communities Program Director for Nebraska Appleseed, described it, “There is now great and widespread appreciation of immigrant youth—their skills, their knowledge, their energy. People are saying we need this next generation.” As a result, activists have racked up a number of key victories at the state level, achieving broad bipartisan support in the state legislature that won DACA youth the right to drivers’ and professional licenses, for example, and overriding the governor’s veto in each case.

What made these achievements possible? Several factors shifted opinion across the state towards better treatment of immigrants. In 2006, a brazen raid on a Swift meatpacking plant in Grand Island resulted in detention of hundreds of workers. Even conservative Nebraskans were shocked at the sight of children left parentless. “Some began saying, wait a minute, that’s no way to treat people,” Tromanhauser remembered. As the Lincoln Journal Star reported in 2013, Chuck Folken, a cattleman in Leigh, Nebraska, and former president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, was one of those dismayed by the raid. He chaired a committee on immigration within his organization that began working to promote positive reforms, including supporting permanent residence for eligible immigrants. As Nebraskans like Folken began to reassess their feelings, they recognized their growing economic dependence on immigrants and their children. Population and economic growth in so many towns across the state have slowed or stalled entirely in recent decades. Without immigrants, they would be even worse off.

Another key factor in shifting opinion was the 2010 battle in the small meatpacking town of Fremont over a discriminatory measure refusing work and shelter to undocumented immigrants. Voters passed the measure by 57 percent, yet, ironically, its success laid bare the cruel xenophobia of organizations (like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR) and individuals (such as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach) who had pushed for the legislation. Even though a 2014 effort to repeal the measure failed, across the state many Nebraskans had soured on anti-immigrant campaigns led by out-of-state organizations. They saw how the Fremont battle pitted neighbors against one another, tainting the town in some people’s eyes as racist, and burdening it with major legal expenses in order to defend the measure in the courts. Furthermore in 2011 FAIR, Kobach, and local supporters overplayed their hand by trying to pass a statewide bill similar to Arizona’s infamous “Show Me Your Papers” measure. This time, the pro-immigrant coalition fought back hard and convinced most people that the bill was blatantly discriminatory. State legislators defeated the measure and public opinion shifted further towards empathy for immigrant and mixed-status families.

A central player in the coalition that generated more support for immigrant families is the Heartland Workers Center (HWC) in Omaha. It was founded in 2009 by a dynamic immigrant from Guatemala named Sergio Sosa. Sosa came to Nebraska in 1996 after having studied philosophy and theology in his home country. He then worked as a community organizer for Omaha Together One Community, helping organize South Omaha’s Mexican and Central American immigrants. Sosa listened to stories of Latinos and Latinas who faced hardships in the workplace and created HWC to protect their rights and help them participate in civic life. HWC provides trainings to workers on topics ranging from workplace issues like the right to vote and occupational safety all the way to gender equality and immigration politics. It also fights for enforcement of labor laws (successfully filing a charge against Greater Omaha Packing Co. in 2012, for example, for retaliating against workers who protested the speedup of the conveyor belt), and goes to court when needed to attack problems like wage theft.

Particularly innovative is HWC’s civic integration program, which focuses on getting out the Latino vote and building and supporting local Latino civic leadership. HWC organizers began a “Voto Por Mi Familia” program that has begun to reshape Omaha’s political landscape. In 2014 voters defeated conservative Congressman Lee Terry in his bid for reelection; observers credited HWC’s work for this in part, noting that Latino voters had increased by 35 percent. This project continued through 2016, when again the number of Latino voters rose significantly. HWC also collaborated with Warren Buffett in 2016, creating a Drive 2 Vote program that mobilized people to drive those in need to the polls. Meanwhile, HWC organizers noticed another consequence of their civic integration project: more Latinos began taking the steps required to become citizens, in many cases so that they could vote in the 2016 election. The Center has also worked to develop local Latino leadership beyond Omaha as well, in towns like Schuyler and Nebraska City. Abbie Kretz, HWC’s lead organizer, stresses the importance of building and supporting local leadership. Towns like Nebraska City “need Latino representation on government, on committees, if they are going to tackle real problems of civic integration, housing, and child care,” she says. In Schuyler, the Comité Latino has become a force, helping one Latino community member win election to the school board and seeing another appointed by the mayor to the town’s Planning Commission.

As Sergio Sosa explained, “People outside of Nebraska look at us, they think they see a traditional and perhaps intolerant place. But there are many communities across the state that focus on inclusivity and respect for all neighbors—including immigrants. Those communities are filled with revolutionary hope, and we are working to help spread their message.” Much of the work of organizations like the Heartland Workers Center and Nebraska Appleseed focuses not on the cities of Omaha and Lincoln, but the smaller towns and cities that have historically been more conservative and yet have seen dramatic demographic transformation. Along with partners like Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) they collaborate on a project known as the Rural Community Inclusion Partnership (RCIP), which focuses on increasing local capacity and building leadership in small towns and rural areas across the state.

Emiliano Lerda, the executive director of Justice for Our Neighbors in Nebraska, observed that increasing communication between the welcoming and immigrant communities is crucial. RCIP works to “build rural inclusivity and local capacity for leadership. We create opportunities for members of the immigrant community to be included in decision-making processes at the local level,” according to Lerda. Nonprofit organizations like JFON and the Heartland Workers Center have limited funds, resources, and capacity. In this context, building local leadership and activism becomes a critical way to expand their mission as well as their message.

The work of this broad coalition has borne fruit. Now most towns and cities with a sizeable percentage of immigrants boast a local organization run by and for immigrants. Local leaders are not only emerging but gaining experience and influence in many towns. In Columbus, an effort that began when two Latinas wanted to help energize their neighborhood has blossomed into one of the most robust immigrant organizations in the state. In the central Nebraska meatpacking town of Lexington, Latinos conducted a major nonpartisan voter education and mobilization campaign. Across the state, these emerging local organizations recognize that civic integration and voter mobilization are key to empowering the immigrant community.

This grassroots coalition, in place years before Trump’s election, has been able to articulate an inspiring and politically savvy message. Sergio Sosa put it this way: “We are building a more inclusive Nebraska; our vision is one where local immigrant leaders are engaged in public life, developing a culture of civic engagement, and speaking for their families and communities.” Sosa sounds very much like an ex-theology student when he declares: “It’s about love and collective power. By taking these actions, we build more colorful and interconnected communities, which will show that immigrants are here to stay and will continue to contribute to Nebraska.”

Their message has become an influential one in state politics. Organizers are seeing a tremendous outpouring of support for refugees and immigrants by native-born Nebraskans of varying races and ethnicities. This February, I visited Nebraska and attended an orientation meeting for volunteers seeking to help Lutheran Family Services resettle refugees. Fa’iz Rab, the organization’s public relations specialist, noted that Nebraska resettles more refugees, per capita, than any other state in the country. The majority of those are handled by Lutheran Family Services. The organization has seen the number of volunteers skyrocket since Trump issued his anti-Muslim executive orders. Instead of receiving a handful of calls from potential volunteers each week, they began getting hundreds. More than twenty-five volunteers—an all-American mixture of students, young professionals, and seniors—showed up to the meeting I attended. They listened as program development officer Lacey Studnicka briefed them on the ways they could help out, from providing rides to doctors to serving as host families for refugees. The volunteers I spoke with looked forward to getting involved, to offering friendship and support to refugees, and proving that Nebraska was a welcoming place for all. In partnership with others, Lutheran Family Services organized candlelight vigils along Dodge, the main street running through Omaha, which brought hundreds of people together to show their support for immigrants and refugees.

The challenge now is twofold: to help immigrant and mixed-status families fight against (and prepare for) possible deportation, and find ways to communicate to both federal bureaucrats and elected officials that most Nebraskans oppose anti-immigrant policies. A scare in February, when it was falsely reported that ICE agents had raided the Nebraska Beef meatpacking plant in south Omaha, convinced activists that developing a rapid response plan must be a priority. Organizations across the state are collaborating to provide legal help quickly and efficiently to families seeking to file temporary guardianship over their children to friends or relatives in case they are deported, or to provide legal assistance to the growing number of detainees. Schools and churches are working overtime to provide counseling and assistance to families; nonprofit organizations like Nebraska Appleseed are providing after-school training sessions. “It’s heartbreaking to see how much community energy is going into planning for emergencies,” noted Nebraska Appleseed’s Darcy Tromanhauser. “Schools are planning what to do if there’s a raid, what to do for kids if their parents don’t come home some night. It’s horrible to see that energy must go to this rather than education.”

To respond to the crisis a large number of organizations came together to form the Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance Hotline. Their most important innovation was the creation of a phone network for those who need help. Although many immigrants in trouble prefer speaking in person, the system does provide for a case to be quickly assigned to whichever Nebraska nonprofit can offer the right sort of assistance most rapidly and efficiently. Other cities, such as Houston, have since copied this key innovation.

In addition, various organizations are providing “know your rights” training to immigrants and helping schools and churches prepare for potential emergencies. In the first three months of 2017 alone, attorneys at Justice for Our Neighbors ran training sessions that reached more than 2,300 people. JFON along with the Heartland Workers Center and thirty other organizations hosted a “Train the Trainer” workshop in February for advocacy organizations. The session drew more than 200 representatives from across the state of Nebraska, and trained them to provide rights training in immigrant communities.

Meanwhile, organizations work to lift the message of inclusivity high enough that elected officials at the federal level will hear it. “The federal government is out of step with the immigration policies Nebraskans want and need,” Darcy Tromanhauser stressed. In January, Nebraska Appleseed brought a delegation of DACA youth to Washington, D.C. to meet with Nebraska’s elected officials. Now they are organizing a social media campaign that will feature community members posting pictures of themselves to show their support for fixing the outdated immigration system and keeping families together. Organizations like the Trinidad Center in Lexington are planning to go door to door to connect with neighbors and ensure everyone knows their legal rights.

As for the Heartland Workers Center, it is now continuing the Get Out the Vote project it conducted during the 2016 political campaigns. Amidst a heated mayoral campaign that pits Democratic State Senator Heath Mello—who has been a leader in fighting for immigrant rights—against the incumbent Jean Stothert, HWC organizers hope to build on their earlier successes, when they saw rising numbers of Latino voters as well as those applying for citizenship. Organizers now observe, when they go door-to-door, that people recognize them as being from the Heartland Workers Center, and they are ready to hear about the issues and candidates. As Abbie Kretz sees the challenge, “This election is about reminding voters that all politics are local, and that we as voters have the power to improve our communities by making informed decisions. In doing so, we’re building a culture of civic engagement—one that goes well beyond sporadic voting in presidential elections.”

Despite all the work being done in Nebraska by immigrant advocates, immigrant families aren’t out of the woods just yet—this is still the land of Trump. As the Schuyler Sun reported in May, the Schuyler Central High School football team, composed mostly of Latinos and Latino Americans, has had to confront racist comments or being spat upon by white competitors. Their parents hear comments like “we are playing a bunch of Mexicans, it should be an easy game.” Yet many other Nebraskans share Sergio Sosa’s goal of expanding inclusiveness and “revolutionary hope” across the state. Years of strategic organizing in the Great Plains provides clear lessons: build a broad coalition devoted to immigrant rights; develop a message of inclusivity, dignity, and respect; support local immigrant leaders; and create strategies that make civic integration and engagement possible. These achievements may not turn the state blue anytime soon—but they are gradually creating a new Nebraska, one in which immigrant families are not only surviving the storms of Trumplandia, but, bit by bit, fighting back.


Julie Greene is Professor of History and Founding Co-Director, with Ira Berlin, of the Center for Global Migration Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.

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