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Catching the Arizona Virus: Nebraska’s Copycat Immigration Enforcement Laws

Nebraska State Capitol Building. (Photo by Jeff Hunter)

February 24, 2011

Washington’s failure to address the “illegal” immigration problem has become the sacred mantra under which everyone, regardless of their true motives, tries to justify what are ultimately useless, divisive, and nativist laws popping up in the nation’s interior. “Immigration laws need to be enforced and it needs to start at the local level— now,” wrote a co-author of a Fremont, Nebraska, ordinance modeled after a 2006 law in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. The Fremont ordinance was defeated, but eventually approved by popular referendum. It is currently stalled in federal court.*

The co-author of the ordinance, then-City Councilman Charlie Jansen, was later elected to the Nebraska legislature, vowing to fight on. Since then, he has been busy introducing a plethora of bills to strip unauthorized and authorized immigrants of any remaining rights or benefits he suspects they may have. Failing three times in two years in his efforts to rescind a law allowing all of 48 undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition at Nebraska state universities, Jansen has now set his sights on the mother of all bills, the Arizona-style LB48: Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act. The main author of Jansen’s laws, and the Arizona law itself, is Kris Kobach, the law professor who was elected Kansas Secretary of State last year. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a report, “When Kris Kobach Comes to Town,” detailing Kobach’s political ambitions and associations with nativist groups.

In what seems like a bad case of the Arizona virus, the Nebraska Legislature will be debating LB48 along with a handful of immigration enforcement laws and resolutions in a single day this month. Among those resolutions, however, is one introduced by Omaha Senator Brenda Council calling on Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. It turns out that Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature’s judiciary committee are overwhelmingly opposed to these state intrusions into federal jurisdiction, and Jansen’s bill may not see the light of day.

Unbeknownst to many, Nebraska’s populist streak has been historically seasoned with a good dose of pragmatism, responsible civic engagement and common sense. Elected officials and civic leaders have been known to rise above the fray of fringe groups always ready to pervert the Constitution. Those leaders also tend to deeply dislike politicians eager to fan the flames of social division and discontent for their own personal agendas. Nebraska, opponents of the bill want everyone to know, is not Arizona.

As census-based reports from the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains have made clear, Nebraska immigrants, the majority of whom are from Latin America, have become the state’s engine of economic growth (www.unomaha.edu/ollas). Estimates show that undocumented immigrants in the state account for about 25 percent to 40 percent of the total foreign-born population. The majority (about 64 percent) of today’s Latinos in Nebraska, the real target of these laws, are U.S. born. More than 80 percent of Latinos less than 18 years of age were born here. In Fremont, that figure rises to 93 percent. Of all the Nebraska non-metro communities with a history of actively recruiting immigrant labor, Fremont is the least affected by that immigration. The foreign born make up less than 5 percent, and Latinos as a whole less than 8 percent, of the town’s approximate population of 25,000.

Clearly, neither these nor a number of other objective conditions are sufficient to explain why this state, or any of these communities, became fertile ground for Arizona-style anti-immigrant laws. The answer may have already been suggested. Historical contingencies afford political operatives opportunities to fuel nativist fears in communities reeling from decades of economic insecurity and unable to fully process the dimensions—or address the uncertainties—associated with profound demographic changes. People like Kobach target these communities and zero in on locals searching for a soap box to conduct legal experiments that may catapult them into elective office or courtroom fame.

In a 2008 hearing on the Fremont ordinance, a known local activist working closely with Kobach testified that the reason their group focuses on Mexicans is because 93 percent of the undocumented immigrant population is from that country. Her incoherent rant included alleged Center for Disease Control data about Mexicans bringing tuberculosis and other diseases into the country. Another supporter of the ordinance extrapolated from an alleged sociological study about “illegal aliens” who commit sex crimes along the border, to conclude that, out of the “150,000 illegal aliens who live in Nebraska” (that was actually the total Hispanic population she was citing), at least 3,000 of them are sexual predators who have victimized 12,000 citizens in the state. Such insanity would have never made it out of the morning gossip session at the local diner in Lexington, Nebraska, the town where I first cut my teeth studying immigration. Yet, made-up data originating in national organizations like the Federation for Ammerican Immigration Reform and circulating in the blogsphere helps create the moral panics that catapult states like Nebraska and people like Kobach to the forefront of the immigration debate.

Rather than immigration enforcement, where the federal government has sole jurisdiction, elected officials at state and local levels should work on laws and initiatives that can foster sustainable development and multi-generational immigrant integration. These sorely neglected areas fall squarely under their jurisdiction. Many of their communities have been victims of bad data and bad economic development policies which have left them misinformed, culturally isolated, depopulated, and bereft of decent jobs. These communities’ only chance at securing a better future, or any future at all, is to provide the children of immigrant workers—their replenishment generation—better opportunities for education, health care, and democratic participation. Rather than wasting resources on passing and defending unconstitutional laws, elected officials, along with the private sector, ought to invest in efforts that allow their states to meet the challenges of population change and harness the benefits of new immigration.

The antidote to the Arizona virus may still be found in the interior of the country after all. Nebraska civic leaders, together with a small but growing number of immigrant-led organizations, are increasingly engaged in initiatives that effectively turn the focus from these useless and divisive immigration enforcement laws. Underlying their work is the growing need to understand—and address—the common causes of internal and international migration and dismantle homespun obstacles to immigrant integration including the hostile climate these laws generate. Let’s hope others follow their lead and let’s hope the private sector becomes a more visible partner in these efforts.

Lourdes Gouveia, Ph.D. is a sociology professor and director of Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

*Editor's note: At the time of publication, this article stated that the ordinance was stalled in the Nebraska Supreme Court. However, it is stalled in federal court, with a bench trial set for April 2012.