Nebraska Senator Takes Tough Stand on Immigration

Nebraska has become an unlikely stage for the debate over immigration. But as the issue plays out there, the typical roles of Republicans and Democrats seem reversed. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson has been pushing for stricter enforcement of immigration laws. His would-be Republican rivals seem to be advocating a more moderate course.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush meets today with a group of businessmen from Orange County to discuss immigration in California. That includes some Republicans who disagree with the president's immigration policies. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also has questions about the administration's ideas. Yesterday, on ABC's This Week, Schwarzenegger said it is unrealistic to consider uprooting the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Governor, California): How do you do this logistically? How does that work to send people back? It will cost 500 billion dollars. Who's going to pay for that?

MONTAGNE: Immigration is also playing into the political debate in a state that's a long way from any U.S. border; Nebraska has absorbed a huge wave of immigrants over the past 15 years. Some arrived legally more came illegally, drawn there by jobs mainly in meatpacking plants.

It was a Republican Senator from Nebraska, in fact, Chuck Hagel, who helped broker an immigration bill compromise, allowing most immigrants who have come to U.S. illegally to stay. That deal is now stuck in procedural wrangling with the Senate, now back from a two-week recess.

NPR's David Welna was just in Nebraska. There, he found immigration's become a central issue in the fight for the seat held by Nebraska's other senator, Democrat Ben Nelson.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID WELNA reporting:

The shiny, red pickup truck with doors swung wide open treats a working-class neighborhood on Omaha's south side to a Mexican love song. The lyrics are easily understood by the Spanish-speaking immigrants who live here, except it's midday and there's hardly anyone around to hear them. Down a hillside at the big meatpacking plants below, the parking lot's are all full; packed with the cars of immigrants who carve up cattle and hogs for a living.

Meanwhile, at a south Omaha police station, a white sports car pulls up and a smiling gray-haired man in a dark suit gets out.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): How you doing? Good to see you. Good to see you.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to the precinct.

Senator NELSON: Yes. Good to be here.

WELNA: Senator Ben Nelson has reason to be in good spirits; a recent poll just rated this conservative Democrat the most highly approved member of the U.S. Senate. In this state, where President Bush got two-thirds of the vote in his re-election, Nelson, a former governor, is a red-state wonder. He has more support from Republicans than does Republican Senator Hagel.

Nelson's here for a photo-op with law enforcement officials focused on fighting methamphetamines, but he quickly pivots to an even hotter issue: what to do about illegal immigration.

Senator NELSON: What we need to have is border security first. And what I mean by border security first is that in some areas it'll have to be a hard barrier...

WELNA: Such talk of erecting more walls on the border puts Nelson in the same camp as some of the Senate's most conservative Republicans. Later, in an interview, he denies his position on immigration has anything to do with getting re-elected in a very red state.

Senator NELSON: I decided it on my own, I didn't check to see what a political party decided and if some others from the other side of the isle agree with my approach, perhaps it is not a partisan approach on their part; maybe they just happen to agree with the Nelson approach.

WELNA: What are you hearing from constituents on this?

Senator NELSON: To secure the borders first.

WELNA: Nelson considers the earned citizenship his Republican colleague and well-known rival Hagel has proposed an amnesty. Still, he refuses to say what, in fact, should happen to the millions now in the country illegally.

Senator NELSON: I'm not going to suggest what we ought to do at the present time, because anything that you do and anything you talk about, there--only accelerates more people coming.

Mr. DON STENBERG (Former Attorney General, Nebraska): Senator Nelson has a reputation for sitting on the fence and blowing with wind. And basically, apparently, he feels that that's the way the wind's blowing right now.

WELNA: Former Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg is a Republican who narrowly lost to Nelson when the two ran for the Senate six years ago. Stenberg accuses Nelson of being opportunistic but he admits they both share the same law and order approach to immigration.

Mr. STENBERG: Amnesty will simply encourage more illegal behavior and more people to come to this country illegally.

WELNA: Stenberg's making another run for Nelson's Senate seat this year. But he's not the only Republican challenger.

Unidentified Woman: And welcome to this debate, between Republican candidates for one of the Nebraska United States Senate seats...

WELNA: Just as he was for two other Republican debates leading up the primary, Stenberg is a no-show at the final debate in Lincoln unlike his two rivals.

Unidentified Woman: They are David Kramer and Pete Rickets. We are very pleased you can be here tonight with us. Thank you.

(Soundbite of Applause)

WELNA: As the son of the billionaire founder of Ameritrade, the online stock trade firm, and as it's former CEO, 41-year-old Pete Ricketts calls himself a businessman, not a politician. That's why, he says, he's all for a pragmatic solution for the millions of immigrant workers who are in the country illegally.

Mr. PETE RICKETTS (Former CEO, Ameritrade; Senatorial Candidate, Nebraska): Some Nebraskan's I've talked to say, hey, I broke the law; they should have to go home. I certainly understand that point of view. They did, indeed, break the law, and I don't believe in amnesty. But, practically speaking, we can't round up 11 million people and send them all home.

WELNA: The other contender, former Nebraska Republican chair David Kramer, also strikes a pragmatic stance on immigration. This 41-year-old son of a Panamanian immigrant says those who've been here at least 5 years illegally should be allowed to stay.

Mr. DAVID KRAMER (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Nebraska): I disagree with the President when it comes to a guest worker program because it discourages assimilation. And if you look at our history, the jobs being performed by immigrants in this country are the same jobs that were being performed by immigrants 100 years ago.

Mr. MILO MUMGAARD (Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public): What you're seeing, particularly from the-some--two of the three challengers in the Republican primary are very commonsensical approaches to the issue of immigration reform.

WELNA: Milo Mumgaard is a prominent Nebraska immigrant rights advocate. He says both Rickets and Kramer take the same commonsense approach advocated by their fellow Republican, Chuck Hagel.

Mr. MUMGAARD: But I also think they understand where the voters are at. And Senator Nelson, at this juncture, I think, is making a miscalculation about where the voters are.

WELNA: Mumgaard insists most Nebraskans have tolerant views on immigration. But for some, the huge influx of immigrants has proven a bane as well as a boon.

(Soundbite of children playing)

WELNA: On the playground at Schuyler Grade School, soccer is the game everyone plays, and many children blend Spanish with English.

In 1990, this prairie town had fewer than 200 Hispanic residents. Today, more than half of Schuyler's population of 5,400 is Latino. Music teacher Mindy Phillips(ph) says it's been quite an adjustment.

Ms. MINDY PHILLIPS (Music Teacher, Schuyler Grade School, Nebraska): It's very difficult. It puts a lot of strain on the teachers, the staff. We are very, very overcrowded.

WELNA: Phillips, who also works with immigrant families, says many in Schuyler sneaked in over the border.

Ms. PHILLIPS: I would say of the population that has immigrated here, it's got to be more than half.

(Soundbite of diners in restaurant)

WELNA: At the Burrito House, a downtown restaurant promising great Mexican food, 22-year-old Jose Salinas(ph) rings up an order. He came to the U.S. from Mexico seven years ago, and he was one of about 3,000 locals who rallied in Schuyler earlier this month for immigrants' rights.

Mr. JOSE SALINAS: People who come to work, I think they should stay. And people who (unintelligible) trouble, (unintelligible).

WELNA: Most of Schuyler's working immigrants are employed at Cargill Meat Solutions, a huge meatpacking plant just outside town. Even though the plant is the town's lifeline, a 51-year-old diner at the Burrito House named Patty Kitt(ph), says rules have to be respected.

Ms. PATTY KITT: I don't think we have a problem with the Hispanics coming here, wanting to make a living; having the American dream. Nobody has a problem with that. It's just the illegals. They're illegal. They're wrong. Get it fixed and come back, or whatever. I think that's the sentiment of a lot of the people.

WELNA: Down the street at the Ford dealership, Schulyer Mayor David Reinecke disagrees. He says it could be catastrophic for Schuyler if its undocumented inhabitants were forced to leave. Years ago, he says, there was a crackdown on illegal immigrants at the packing plant.

Mayor DAVID REINECKE (Mayor of Schuyler, Nebraska): A lot of those people left and it crates a big problem for our community. We rely on Cargill running at full speed for our local economy. So yes, it is a problem.

WELNA: And it's a problem Nebraskans will likely hear much more about as the election draws nearer, in a state heavily dependent on immigrant labor, whose senate candidates are divided along party lines for sure, but also between leniency and law and order.

David Welna, NPR News.

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