Story by Courtney Pitts photo illustration by Kyle Bruggeman
Although Nebraska’s congressional leaders are reluctant to weigh in on an Arizona-style immigration bill, some see the legislation as the state’s cry for help to the federal government.
In a series of recent interviews, Nebraska’s U.S. senators and representatives agreed that states have the right to take immigration matters in to their own hands.
“It is the federal government’s responsibility to secure the borders of our country, and when it fails to fulfill this responsibility, states have no choice but to act in their own interests,” U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns said in an e-mail.
Nebraska’s controversial immigration bill, LB48, would require police to stop or arrest someone to check whether that person is in the country legally if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe otherwise.
The bill is modeled after Arizona’s SB 1040, which was signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in April 2010. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund sued Arizona for overstepping federal authority while encouraging racial profiling. The Arizona law is tied up in courts and has yet to go into effect.
While U.S. Rep. Lee Terry understands immigration as a federal issue, he believes the states have the right to enforce laws, said a Terry spokesperson in a phone interview. However, Terry also is concerned about placing a burden on private businesses to check immigration status of employees.
Replied U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson: “Both the states and the federal government have the authority and responsibility to issue and enforce immigration laws.”
U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith expressed similar views on the issue.
“The federal government has a responsibility to enforce and protect our nation’s borders,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “Because it has failed, states and localities have moved forward with their own legislation to protect their citizens, and I support their rights to do so.”
As a member of the Immigration Reform Caucus, Smith said he will advocate for immigration reform, which he defined as strong borders, effective enforcement and no amnesty.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry also offered solutions to Nebraska’s and the nation’s immigration problems – including tougher borders, punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants and ending birthright citizenship.
Closer to home, Fremont Sen. Charlie Janssen, who introduced LB48, said he expects the immigration bill to die in committee, but he hopes legislators can at least have an open discussion about the issue.
Either way, a message has reached Nebraska’s congressional leaders.
“I’ve always made it a practice to respect our state officials and not give opinions on Unicameral issues,” said Johanns, a former Nebraska governor. “I can tell you that I understand the sense of frustration among the states.”
Nelson, also a former Nebraska governor, echoed similar sentiments.
“Understandably this has ratcheted up the rhetoric on both sides of the immigration debate,” Nelson said. “Regardless of the merits of the law, it highlights that the federal government has more work to do to secure the border.”