Immigration in focus for rural America

A raid in north central Nebraska put a spotlight on immigration in rural America. It targeted alleged labor exploitation by a local employment agency. It swept up more than 100 community members and employees of local businesses.

The raid highlighted how deeply immigration is reshaping rural America.

When we consider immigration, we often think of midsize communities with large meatpackers. Few of us think of communities with 100 residents in a county of 800 residents. That is increasingly the reality.

In conversation with rural people, I often hear a refrain about immigration. I’ll paraphrase it as, “I don’t mind new immigrants moving here, I just wish they would do it legally.”

Unfortunately, there is no legal pathway for the vast majority of immigrants.

Consider, there are three primary ways to immigrate legally to the U.S. This includes employer-based immigration, family reunification, and humanitarian protection.

Employer-based immigration is limited, and unavailable for most immigrants.

For individuals who have a legal pathway, resulting wait times can stretch to 20 years. This is untenable.

That is why the Center for Rural Affairs first called on Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

We called for creating an opportunity for undocumented immigrants to fulfill requirements and become citizens, a more robust process for legal immigration, a new commission to determine a practical number of workers allowed to immigrate annually, and enforcement of wage and labor laws to prevent employers from misclassifying workers.

The reality is that new immigrants have become an important part of our communities. They are homeowners, entrepreneurs, leaders, parents, and employees. It is not our new neighbors who have failed to keep up. It is our own immigration law that has not kept up with our communities and the people who live there—new immigrants and long time residents alike.

The need to enact immigration law change is as critical and urgent as it was in 2013.