LINCOLN — More than half the 12 workers on Jerry Kuenning's ranch and cattle feed yard are immigrants.
They do everything from clean feed bunks to program and operate highly advanced tractors. It's hard work and they do it well, he said Thursday. Yet he and others in the food industry need to worry about what happens when the authorization papers of their employees expire.
It's why Kuenning, a member of the Nebraska Cattlemen, spoke at a rally Thursday outside the State Capitol in support of a national immigration overhaul.
“Immigration affects all of us citizens, no matter what occupation we might be involved with, because we are all food consumers,” said Kuenning, who lives and works near Imperial.
He represented one of 44 organizations and elected officials who called on national lawmakers to seize the latest opportunity to reform immigration. Committees in both houses of Congress are working to come up with proposals.
But even as supporters of reform held their banners and delivered their slogans, those seeking to crack down on illegal immigration remained unconvinced. Among them was State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, a Republican candidate for governor in 2014.
“I don't want an amnesty plan,” Janssen said Thursday. “Securing the borders is paramount to me, and then we can start having discussion on how to deal with the people who broke our laws to come here.”
In the crowd were those familiar to the immigration reform movement, including Nebraska Appleseed, Latino Center of the Midlands and the ACLU Nebraska. But participation by groups such as the Cattlemen and the Nebraska Restaurant Association indicated how the debate involves economics as well as politics.
The rally came as a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators announced last weekend that it had made significant progress by striking a deal between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on a new low-skilled worker visa program. The group is expected to unveil more details of its plan next week, after Congress returns from a two-week Easter recess.
Disagreements over the low-skilled worker visa program had threatened to derail the negotiations over a comprehensive plan that also will seek to address border security, employer enforcement and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people already in the country illegally.
Jim Partington, representing Nebraska restaurant owners, said the state and nation will need more workers to replace the baby boomers who are rapidly leaving the workforce.
Immigration reform represents an opportunity to address that challenge.
“Immigrant families, hundreds of thousands of whom include U.S. citizens, would no longer fear being broken apart, and the era of immigrants dying on America's doorstep in search of new opportunities would end,” he said.
Several speakers said the nation must update laws and policies that have failed to respond to today's economic and social realities.
“The need and justification for fixing our nation's broken immigration system are beyond reasonable dispute,” said Jim Cunningham of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.
Others, when contacted after the event, said business interests want a cheap source of labor they can exploit. They also argued that providing amnesty to a large segment of low-income people would place a huge demand on the nation's public benefits and services.
Many people see amnesty as a reward for breaking the law, said Susan Smith of Omaha, founder of an illegal immigration opposition group called Nebraskans Advisory Group.
“My message to Congress is, 'Let's stop making a mockery of our legal system,' ” she said.
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