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Immigrants in the Heartland

By Donna R. Gabaccia, Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota

It was no accident that President Bush chose to talk about immigration in Omaha, Nebraska last week. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/07/us/07cnd-immig.html

Nebraskans who think immigration is new to their state have forgotten that in 1870 a quarter of Nebraska’s population was foreign-born (in 2000, it was under 2%) Now low unemployment rates in Nebraska (3.81%) are again attracting foreigners. Many are from Mexico, and most entered the U.S. without authorization. Yes, many Nebraska conservatives—like their counterparts elsewhere--want more stringent enforcement of the borders. But their own, conservative president, George W. Bush, was there to tell them about the positive impact of foreign workers on the economy.

Immigrants work in large numbers in Nebraska’s meat-packing and food-processing plants. Much of the food they process is headed south, as part of Nebraska’s growing export trade with Mexico. In a state concerned about the loss of its farming population—and long worried about losing a Congressional seat—immigration has meant a net population gain and economic revitalization. (Richard Dooling, “Immigration Beefs up Nebraska,? New York Times, June 11, 2006).

Only a day after Bush traveled to Nebraska, UC Berkeley and Tulane University professors released their own report, claiming that a quarter of construction workers, and as high as 45 percent of all reconstruction workers in hurricane-devastated New Orleans are Hispanics. Again many are foreigners without proper documents. Their wages are lower and their working conditions more dangerous than American workers’. Yet the mayor of New Orleans suggested already last fall that Mexicans were “over-running the city.? Perhaps President Bush needs to visit conservatives in Louisiana, too. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/08/us/nationalspecial/08workers.html

What states like Nebraska and cities like New Orleans need is a national immigration policy that acknowledges a simple fact: in many parts of the country economic growth does not mean high-tech employment. It means a strong demand for manual laborers. They need a national immigration policy that respects manual work and workers.

As long as U.S. immigration policy criminalizes the manual laborers that economic revitalization demands, the country will face the “problem? of “illegal? workers who endanger themselves and the wages and working conditions of immigrant and American workers alike.

Donna R. Gabaccia is the Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of History at the University of Minnesota and Director of the Immigration History Research Center