Nebraska's relationship with Mexican Immigration

June 21, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to render it's verdict this month on President Obama's executive actions on immigration.

Listen To This Story

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. If upheld, a proposal by President Obama would shield an estimated four million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Nebraska and 25 other states sued to stop the deferred action programs after they were announced in November 2014. NET News talks with James Garza, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, about the programs. His areas of expertise include history and ethnic studies.

NET NEWS: I think you're in the unique position to offer some context on what this decision means for Nebraska. Your research has traced the history of Mexican immigration into the Great Plains going all the way back to the sixteenth century.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JAMES GARZA: It's a complex issue that often reflects the times that the country’s in and there's a lot of viewpoints. It can get heated at times. I think the historical background can sometimes help people see the greater context of this topic.

NET NEWS: You've mentioned historical anxiety as being a focal point of this debate on immigration. Can you elaborate?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR GARZA: In the early twentieth century you had a lot of fears in the United States concerning immigrants. Periodically, the country goes through these anxieties like in the 1950’s during the height of the Cold War. At that time the fears of the Soviet Union, you also had actions on the part of the government to deport Mexican immigrants Right now with the war on terror, economic anxieties, the rise of China… I guess I would say there is even anxiety about capitalism itself. There is a lot of feeling that Mexican or immigrants from Latin America, in general, pose a threat to the economic well-being of many Americans.

NET NEWS: What about public perception in the Midwest? What about Nebraska?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR GARZA: The first immigrants from Mexico were here especially in the western part of the state working on railroads and then they started in the sugar beet industry. That was an effort not only by sugar beet companies, but by the U.S. government, which were looking for an inexpensive labor source. Mexican immigrants fit the bill. Then with the movement of meat packing plants to rural Nebraska, the industry has had a need for immigrants. In some parts of Nebraska (hostilities) can be low key. In other parts, it can be pretty heated like in smaller towns where there have been restrictions placed on immigrants.

NET NEWS: As you stated, part of that migration had to do with a gap in the workforce. It struck me that there's an argument now that not much has changed over the years in that regard.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR GARZA: Exactly. It's interesting because the U.S. government actively sought out a work force that could be paid less to be able to supply sugar to the domestic market. Now we have the same kinds of economic forces especially with meat and pork processing. You have the need for immigrants who work for lower wages. Nebraska's always had these industries that seek out a competitive edge.

NET NEWS: As we await this decision, what should we take away from this issue that so many people are passionate about?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR GARZA: One thing we can understand or take away is the statistical fact right now that immigration from Mexico is at an all-time low. It's actually immigration from other parts of the world that is an issue for the government and for people who are observing this whole phenomenon. Mexico's population itself is aging rapidly and it's not contributing that much. We have immigrants coming from other parts of the world fleeing economic and political problems which are actually something to think about.