I am Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs of Lyons, Nebraska.
As I was preparing for this testimony I went back to reread a 1936 essay by the author John Steinbeck about the refugees from the dust bowl – including rural Nebraskans perhaps some our relatives – who were so deeply resented by many Californians.
He wrote “The new migrants to California from the dust bowl are here to stay. They are of the best American stock, intelligent, resourceful; and, if given a chance, socially responsible. They can be citizens of the highest type.
Steinbeck was hated for his views; But history has proven him correct.
I have found his words to ring true for my Latino neighbors in Burt County. As the coach of my son’s little league team I went to the homes of his Latino classmates to personally speak to their parents and invite them to participate. They agreed and I later found them to be good neighbors, good families and appreciative parents.
For many of our rural communities, immigrants have helped reduce the erosion of population. I handed out a map that shows Nebraska counties that lost population in the 80s and 90s, but also experienced a doubling of Hispanic residents in the 90s.
As we rural Nebraskans work to revitalize our communities and maintain population, I would argue that we need to think twice before making our new Latino neighbors feel unwelcome.
We recognize that the status quo in immigration is not acceptable. America needs to manage immigration at realistic levels that protect wage levels of working people. And we need to enforce those limits.
But we need to do it in a way that is just, workable and good for our communities. That requires comprehensive federal immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for our new neighbors who were effectively invited here by employers, denied any legal path to immigration and have since been responsible community members.
Forcing a mass exodus of immigrants – good employees and good neighbors – is good for no one.
We of course recognize that the United States is a nation of laws, and respect for the law is important.
But some of our greatest moral leaders considered factors beyond meting out strict consequences for breaking the law.
Abraham Lincoln rejected punishment of Southern secessionists – law breakers who prompted bloody carnage – to enable our nation to bind itself back together – because it was good for America, just as a path to citizenship would be good for Nebraska.
The prophet Micah chastised those who placed careful observance of religious laws above what mattered more – “to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant. He might have no other avenue to a better life for his family. The waiting list for LEGAL immigration is several decades.
Might we do the same if that was the only way to offer a future to our kids? Would Micah say justice and kindness demand some consideration other than deportation for impoverished immigrants, just as he demanded just treatment for the poor in his time?
Would he say humility recognizes that we ourselves are descendants of immigrants, who, unlike most of today’s immigrants, were given the opportunity to come legally?
Thank you for considering these questions.