Nebraska United Methodist Women Bring People Together for Immigration Seminar
On April 13, about 45 Nebraskans gathered at the St. Benedict Retreat Center in Schuyler, Neb., for a two-day seminar on immigration. The seminar brought together United Methodist Women from across the Nebraska Conference, several representatives from National Mission Institutions, a deaconess, students from Nebraska Wesleyan and even one Lutheran. The seminar was a collaboration between the Nebraska Conference United Methodist Women and the United Methodist Seminar Program.
The town of Schuyler was a fitting location for this event. A meat-packing plant is the largest source of employment in town, and today those jobs are filled primarily by immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Somalia and the Sudan. This reality has meant a major shift in the population of Schuyler over the past two decades. For example, 45 percent of students in the school district are English-as-a-second-language students.
We also learned that similar to many states across the nation, Nebraskans have been involved in the struggle to protect the basic rights of immigrants in their communities. Darcy Tromanhauser with Nebraska Appleseed spoke about the most recent struggle in Nebraska—the passage of LB599. This piece of legislation would restore funding for prenatal care for all low-income mothers, including undocumented immigrants. The governor had vetoed the bill, and as we discussed the issue during the seminar, the legislature was working to override the veto. Of course many United Methodist Women members in the room were already familiar with the legislation, having been involved in a campaign to send in postcards to their legislators supporting the bill’s passage. Just four days after the seminar, the legislature successfully overrode the veto, thanks in part to the efforts of Nebraska’s United Methodist Women!
Several speakers and students shared powerful stories of their struggle with the immigration system. We heard from a DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) student how at a young age he was brought here with his family to escape extreme poverty. He explained that his father had operated a small farm supply store in Mexico. However, following the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), they began to witness the gradual disappearance of small-scale Mexican farmers who struggled to compete with the influx of highly subsidized American agricultural products. These farmers were his father’s customers, and as they disappeared, so did his parents’ ability to feed the family. His parents eventually made the extremely difficult decision to move the entire family north in search of work.
We also heard from a Spanish teacher who had come on an employment visa. She told how she applied for several jobs to teach Spanish in U.S. high schools and after receiving interest from one school, she had to wait an agonizing six months in her native Colombia while the job was reposted in Nebraska, knowing that if just one person applied for the job from within the states her visa would be denied. She spoke passionately about how she struggled with the decision to leave her parents and sister in order to provide a better life for her young son.
There were several “ah-hah” moments during the seminar. Participants learned from an immigration time line displayed on the walls around the room that economic interests and race were driving factors in setting immigration policy throughout U.S. history. When labor was needed to build the transcontinental railroad, to fill the factories of the early 20th century or to work the fields during a labor shortage of World War II, people from China, Ireland, Mexico and other places where encouraged to come. However, once the job was done, the economy declined or the war was over, if the immigrant laborers weren’t white, time and again their ability to immigrate was restricted (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) or they were simply deported en masse (Operation Wetback in 1954). Participants discovered this pattern repeatedly in the time line, which led to a conversation about the role that race and the economy play in the current immigration debate.
Participants also came to the realization that for the overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants in this country, under current immigration policy there is no channel of immigration or path to citizenship available. This was true for the DREAM student and his family and was evident from stories we heard from several other speakers who encounter immigrants in their work and communities.
A final important moment came during the closing conversation as the participants grappled with how to respond. There was a realization among those gathered that the solutions that politicians offer as “comprehensive immigration reform” never address the root causes of migration such as free trade policy, International Monetary Fund and World Bank structural adjustment policies and massive agricultural subsidies in wealthy countries. Participants pointed out that if true change is to come about, a shift in the conversation needs to happen to include the basic question of why people are migrating.
We recognized throughout the seminar that immigration is a challenging issue. It is deeply complex and for many people creates a great deal of anxiety due to so much heated and polarizing rhetoric. The effects of immigration on communities can be both positive and negative depending on how people respond to new diversity. While some see new ethnic and cultural diversity as threatening, others embrace it as opportunities for growth and new experiences and relationships. Several participants spoke of the revitalization of towns that no longer had boarded up empty storefronts in their downtowns like so many other small towns across Nebraska. Some bragged how United Methodist Churches facing a near certainty of closure had rebounded when they opened up those doors to their new immigrant neighbors.
Ultimately, there are challenges that remain for Nebraskans who are working to protect and advance the rights of immigrants. As with most justice issues, progress is slow and requires a long-term commitment to staying engaged. However, there are signs of hope. From the passage of LB599 to the gathering of 45 individuals for two days to engage one another in open and honest dialogue, Nebraskans are committing to work together for a future based on justice and the Kin-dom of God.
For more information on how to schedule a seminar on immigration or other social justice issues, contact the United Methodist Seminar Program at 212-682-3633.