KEARNEY — A forum on immigration issues became emotional for some participants Tuesday at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“I can no longer think of immigrants as a number or a stat in an Internet article. These are human beings. They’re not ‘those’ people, because they’re people. They’re my neighbors, they’re my students, they’re my students’ parents, and I know their stories,” said panelist Karen Buchfink, a counselor for Crete Public Schools.
The audience of more than 100 students, faculty and community members erupted in applause.
Buchfink said Crete has an increasing number of immigrants, especially from Mexico and Central America.
She said most immigrants come to the United States because they are in poverty and are trying to build a better life.
“A parent in that situation is no different than any of us who have children,” Buchfink said. “You want to do the best for your kids, and you want to give them a life.”
Panelist Ron Snell of the Connection Homeless Shelter in North Platte said trying to change policy can seem daunting, so individuals can make a difference by befriending immigrants and learning about their stories.
Snell has pushed for state government to allow funding to be used for services for homeless immigrants.
“If the government can’t keep them from landing on my doorstep, don’t tell me I can’t let them in, give them a warm bed and give them a meal,” he said.
Snell hopes immigration laws will be reformed to make it easier to become a legal resident. Becoming a legal resident often takes years and thousands of dollars, and immigrants aren’t allowed to work while they’re trying to obtain residency, he said.
Those supporting immigration reform said the work of immigrants is important for the economy.
“I guarantee every one of you sitting here has benefited from the work of an illegal immigrant,” Snell said.
The group discussed the importance of immigrants working in meatpacking plants in Nebraska. Of the 200,000 people who work in meatpacking plants, between 70 percent and 80 percent are immigrants, according to Norm Pflanz, the staff attorney for the Immigrant Integration and Civic Participation program for Nebraska Appleseed.
Susan Smith of the Nebraskans Advisory Group, an organization that opposes illegal immigration, said illegal immigrants often don’t pay taxes and those who are paid under the table force Americans to pay more in taxes.
Pflanz said one of the biggest misconceptions about illegal immigrants is that they don’t pay taxes.
Everyone pays sales tax, property taxes and income taxes, he said.
Another misconception is that undocumented immigrants use more government services than they pay for in taxes, he said.
“They’ll pay an estimated $80,000 more than they’ll ever receive,” Pflanz said. “Because they’re undocumented, they’ll never likely receive those benefits.”
All undocumented immigrants are ineligible for government-run services such as welfare, food stamps and Medicaid.
Audience members asked about the motivation of immigrants to learn English.
“It doesn’t help that businesses and our schools are doing the bilingual thing, English and Spanish. I think that’s really keeping them from learning English,” Smith said.
In response to her comment, a student asked if Americans should learn the languages of our neighboring countries. Her question was greeted with applause.
Smith also believes illegal immigrants should not be deported, but that businesses should stop hiring them and the government should stop supporting them so they have no choice but to move back to their home countries.
“I’m convinced that the reason illegal immigrants are here is because we want them here,” Snell said. “If we didn’t want them here, they wouldn’t be here. We benefit from them being here.”
Graduate student Joel Lemus helped organize the event.
The panel discussion was sponsored by the Epsilon Alpha Beta Fraternity, the Political Science Department, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the American Democracy Project.