Nebraskans debate immigration

August 19, 2011

immigration forum
Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont (from left), Rev. David Lux, Leticia Rodriguez and Ben Kantack participate as panelists for a community conversation on Neb. immigration.

By Ellen Jean Hirst photo by Kyle Bruggeman

In between filing taxes Monday evening, Fremont Sen. Charlie Janssen fielded more than a dozen questions during a 75-minute public forum on immigration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Janssen, who sponsored the controversial Nebraska immigration bill, was one of four panelists at the “Nebraska Immigration Forum,” which attracted about 200 people to Andersen Hall, home of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Other panelists included the Rev. David Lux, senior pastor at Saint Paul United Methodist in Lincoln; Leticia Rodriguez, a leader among the immigrant community in Madison; and Benjamin Kantack, a UNL junior political science and Spanish major were panelists.

The immigration forum flashed across the areas of illegal immigration as well as political, economic and religious issues.

Michael J. Smith, director and CEO of the Nebraska State Historical Society, opened the program by describing an event that happened 236 years ago: Paul Revere alerting his Massachusetts countrymen that, “The British are coming, the British are coming!” Ever since, Smith said, people have been warning each other and talking about who is coming next.

Today is no exception.

Illegal immigration in the United States has been a hot political potato for years, and only recently has it hit home in Nebraska. With a 77.3 percent increase in Nebraska’s Hispanic population during the last decade, segregation and economic consequences increasingly are debated.

The moderator, Gary Kebbel, dean of the journalism college, cited a controversial 2008 University of Nebraska-Omaha study. The study concluded that the overall immigrant population contributes 7 percent more to the economy than it takes away.

Sen. Janssen said he didn’t believe the study was relevant, since it didn’t measure the illegal immigrant population.

“I have no reason to say it’s not credible on immigration as a whole,” Janssen said. “Sometimes when you look at facts, they can get blended together in the wrong arena.”

He said he thinks it would be more valuable to measure the illegal immigrant population’s economic impact.

Rodriguez, Madison resident, saw it differently. She said there will always be people – immigrants and non-immigrants – who will want to “live off the system.” But illegal immigrants who want to work in Nebraska, she said, and cannot afford to emigrate legally, should be able to so.

“We are penalized to come, and help and be productive in this country,” Rodriguez said.

The moral implications of immigration were also discussed.

“It’s impossible not to talk about moral issues,” the Rev. Lux said. “You’re talking about how we treat each other.”

For him, Janssen said, it is more clear-cut.

“I’m Catholic. If I were to commit a crime, I could go confess that sin and make amends in that case, but that doesn’t make amends to society,” he said.

But there was one thing everyone agreed on: Immigration is a federal issue.

Both Lux and Rodriguez said the current pathway to citizenship is too complicated and needs to be reformed. Janssen said that since the federal government has not acted, he must. Federal immigration reform is the solution to many problems, Kantack said, including the Nebraska DREAM Act and the fear that illegal immigrants have while living in hiding.

“The federal government needs to start listening,” Janssen said. “Forums like this, panels like this, help in doing that.”

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