Photo by Kyle Bruggeman
Story by Ellen Hirst
More than 300 people gathered on the sun-splashed steps of the Capitol Building Thursday to make their case in a unified chorus: There’s no place for Arizona-style laws in Nebraska.
They came to protest a controversial bill – LB48 – modeled after a similar one in Arizona. Some protesters came during their noon lunch breaks, while others drove from Omaha, Grand Island and Kearney flashing colorful, handmade signs like “Reform, Not Racism” and “God’s LOVE has no borders.”
Nebraska’s immigration bill, now scheduled for a March 2 judiciary committee hearing, would require police who stop or arrest someone to check whether that person is in the country legally – if the officer reasonably suspected otherwise.
Thursday’s speakers raised concerns about what they said were the potential social, economic and safety implications posed by LB48.
Alan Potash, with Anti-Defamation League Great Plains Region, said the extra responsibilities the law would place on local and state law enforcement officers would jeopardize the safety of communities. It would create a “chilling effect,” deterring even legal immigrants from wanting to cooperate with police.
A number of others questioned whether the bill is constitutional. Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, chief sponsor of the bill, and Attorney General Jon Burning, who helped craft the some of the language, are confident the bill will pass constitutional muster.
But for the Rev. Ann B. Sherer-Simpson, resident bishop of Nebraska United Methodist Church, this law isn’t about constitutionality – it’s about vulnerability.
“God cares for the vulnerable among us. We are making whole classes of persons more vulnerable,” she said in a statement read by the Rev. David Lux, senior pastor for St. Paul United Methodist Church.
The issue of “anchor babies” also became a rally topic. In the past, Sen. Janssen has used that term to describe children born to illegal immigrants in the United States. He has said this provides incentives for people to enter the country illegally.
Frank LaMere of Omaha, a Winnebago Tribe member, took that issue head on. He said that Native Americans and Hispanics are brothers and sisters in the fight for equal opportunity.
“I am amazed by the discussion and ridicule he has engendered about ‘anchor babies’ who lived, grew and flourished on lands stolen from the Omaha, the Otoe and the Pawnee who are now displaced,” LaMere said to an outburst of applause.
Surrounding LaMere and the other speakers were the faces of ethnically diverse people standing beneath a tile-blue sky. Among the faces were:
Esther Palma. At 86, she could have stayed in the comfort of her Omaha home Thursday. Instead, she found herself standing on the cold Capitol steps.
Born and raised in Omaha, Palma said it was her mother who emigrated from Mexico. Mistaken as an immigrant for the majority of her life, Esther said she often found herself fighting to protect her four children from discrimination. When people asked why she went to school meetings, she said she always replied: “I’m here to defend my kids because they’ve got people against them, because they’re Mexican.”
Dr. Mario Sanchez skipped his family medical practice to be at the UNITY rally. A U.S. resident for more than 20 years, Sanchez emigrated from Lima, Peru. Although he is opposed to LB48 overall, he nevertheless said he sees a silver lining in the bill.
“To me, this is the best thing that could have happened in the United States to Latinos because they have awakened a lot of Latinos to understand that if we don’t become organized and we don’t become involved in politics…we’re doomed,” said Sanchez.
Karise Carillo and her friends walked to the rally from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, some with heavy backpacks. About 20 people from the Mexican American Student Association and other groups based in the The Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center met up at the event.
Carillo said LB48 would hit home for MASA members, many of whom are from South Sioux City, Grand Island and other towns with large Hispanic populations.
“It affects everybody on a personal level because this would affect their home communities greatly,” she said. “But then also it affects MASA members on a personal level because of the way we look, the language that we speak, and we frankly don’t want to be discriminated as such by the law.”
Oscar Castaneda, a Guatemalan immigrant, said he wouldn’t leave the state if LB48 passes.
“I’m going to keep fighting for my community until this is resolved,” said the Omaha resident, who is a leader in Pixan Ixim, an organization of ethnic Mayans in South Omaha. If LB48 passes, “It’s going to cause a social disaster, a familial disaster … family breakup,” he said. “It affects us all, both Hispanics and Americans.”
Genoveva Sanchez emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Nebraska 25 years ago, when she was 17. She said she had always felt welcome in Nebraska until the state began considering Arizona-style immigration laws.
“I’m afraid Hispanic people will leave, because I’m afraid they’ll be harassing us,” Sanchez said. “This is the first time I have felt that people are really looking at me.”
Tom Scherer wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: “I’m an immigrant.”
The pale-skinned, 77-year-old retired educator emigrated from Ontario, Canada. He and his wife said they receive e-mails from those who support the law – a law Bonnie Scherer said could hurt her adopted hometown.
“Lincoln really has a good reputation nationwide that we are a place that welcomes people from other countries,” she said. “I value that and I don’t want to see anything damage that.”
Also contributing to this story were Rachel Albin, Asha Anchan and John Schreier.
Artist Ben Jones (right) brought his own form of protest to the rally.
Photos by Kyle Bruggeman
Tags: Ellen, Ellen Hirst, Lincoln, Lincoln Nebraska, State capital