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Nebraska City News-Press - Nebraska City, NE
  • Local leaders speak out about ongoing immigration issues

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  • Statements from Governor Heineman in the past week about the more than 200 illegal immigrant children settling within Nebraska state borders has added a greater narrative to the topic of immigration reform in Nebraska.  
    In a press release from Gov. Heineman’s office, he said he will “continue to fight” for the names and information of the children and their sponsors.
    “I can’t ensure that any illegal individual is not getting federal and state benefits if I don’t know who they are and if they are not in our system,” Heineman said. “I want to know who is going to pay for the education of these unaccompanied alien children that are being sent to Nebraska.”
    Diversity in education and commerce is what immigrants provide southeastern Nebraska.
    Community leaders in Syracuse and Nebraska City, Nebraska, said their small presence has positively affected commerce and business.
    A lack of educational resources for immigrant children has left community leaders wondering how immigration reform could help these children, though.  
    Mayor Jack Hobbie of Nebraska City said that diversity is the word that comes to mind when he thinks of what immigration has brought to the city.
    He said Nebraska City currently has two Hispanic restaurants, a Hispanic grocery store, two Chinese restaurants and a Vietnamese restaurant that just opened.
    “They bring businesses to diversify us and commerce to help keep us going,” Hobbie said. “These places weren’t things you saw here 15 to 20 years ago.”
    Hobbie said in the past 20 years immigrants have come mostly to fill jobs available at one of the three major employers in the area: Cargill, American Meter or Diversified Foods & Seasonings, Inc.
    “I picture it a lot like our forefathers,” he said. “Our forefathers came and then a brother or sister followed because of job opportunities, and they eventually established themselves in the community.”
    Other cities in the region, like Syracuse, haven’t seen a great impact from immigration.
    Carolyn Gigstad, executive director of the Syracuse Area Chamber of Commerce, said Syracuse has seen little to no increase in immigrants.
    “I can’t foresee immigration reform affecting Syracuse unless we have bigger industries coming in,” Gigstad said. “Who’s to say we won’t get those industries in the future though and really need immigrants to help?” A 2012 study from the Midwest Immigration Task Force found that immigration to rural areas had a 57 percent growth from 2000-2010. Becky Gould, executive director at Nebraska Appleseed, a Lincoln-based nonprofit that advocates for equal opportunities for every Nebraskan, said immigrants feel more at home in these rural communities.
    Page 2 of 3 - “The way we look at immigration for our state as a whole is that in some of the rural areas we are looking to attract people to be contributors to the community,” Gould said. “Immigration has been positive in that regards.”
    Gould said Nebraskans in these smaller communities have a sense of neighborliness who want to build a great community.
    She said that is why many immigrants are attracted to Nebraska – they can create a community for themselves and their families. She said education is always a positive and a negative whenever a new population arrives in a community, though.
    Dr. Jeffrey Edwards, superintendent for Nebraska City Public Schools (NCPS), said if immigration reform could bring anything to the city it could be more funding for English Language Learners classes (ELL). Edwards said each student brings a set of unique challenges. A good example of this is when a Mandarin family moved to town and the school district didn’t have access to a Chinese translator.
    “The Mandarin student really threw us for a loop,” Edwards said. The four Nebraska City schools – Northside Elementary, Hayward Elementary, Nebraska City Middle School and Nebraska City High School – have two full-time teachers and two paraprofessionals who divide their time among the four schools.
    Edwards said there are 12 current immigrant children enrolled at NCPS. 
    The public school system only gets $7,000 per year from the federal government from a No Child Left Behind grant to help provide ELL classes for these children. Edwards said many of the kids come from countries, like Honduras and Guatemala, where children are only expected to go to school until fourth or fifth grade.
    “Sixteen or 17-year-olds who come in could be at a way lower grade level because of this educational difference,” Edwards said.
    He said many of them start taking elective classes right away, like gym and art class. All of them have to take English as a Second Language classes before entering a regular classroom, though.
    A big portion of the ELL resources comes from a state-aid formula, too. Every year NCPS has to write an English proficiency plan that helps the state determine how much money to allocate to the public school system.
    Edwards said the money allowance ranges from $80,000 - $100,000, which allows them to hire the ELL teachers and paraprofessionals.
    The unique perspective and diversity immigrants bring to classrooms has given an overall positive impact to the schools and community. Although, an inability to provide fully for the immigrant children has left Edwards and other community leaders entertaining the idea that immigration reform could bring more resources to the schools.
    “One of the things we are required to do as a public school is educate everyone that comes through our doors,” Edwards said.
    Page 3 of 3 - “Our job is to continue to educate them – immigrant or non-immigrant, legal or illegal.”

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