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Expert: Immigrants Have Played a Key Role in Nebraska’s Development

Expert: Immigrants Have Played a Key Role in Nebraska’s Development
Craig Chandler/University Communication

Immigrants have shaped Nebraska’s society for the past 150-plus years and are critical to its continued development, according to Lourdes Gouveia, professor emerita of sociology and co-founder of the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. UNL 

Gouveia provided a retrospective look at the impact immigrants have had on the state Oct. 3 at the Nebraska Innovation Campus Conference Center during the first Heuermann Lecture of the 2017-18 season.

“Immigrants are, and will always be, an intricate scaffold for continuing to build Nebraska’s society, economy, politics and culture,” Gouveia said, noting their role in the state’s agricultural development and the meat-packing industry. 

Gouveia has authored and co-authored a number of articles aimed at documenting the profound sociodemographic changes and processes of immigrant incorporation occurring in new destination states such as Nebraska. As OLLAS director, she produced a number of policy-relevant reports, which have been offered as key evidence by Nebraska state senators opposing bills seeking to restrict immigrant rights. Her current work focuses on the growing exodus of middle-class, highly educated Venezuelans.

During the lecture, Gouveia detailed several waves of migration to and from Nebraska over the years. The initial wave consisted of poor European peasants and craftsmen, displaced by industrialization, drawn to the region by the allure of inexpensive land and the demand for labor. By the end of the 19th century, this group turned Nebraska into the nation’s fourth-largest producer of corn and a major supplier of cattle and sugar. At this time, Americans and their legislators welcomed those from around the world with little restriction. Gouveia said this has led to today’s view of citizenship.

“The myth that citizenship can be had if you just get in line, wait your turn and speak English, which has developed so profoundly today, comes from these earlier memories, which happened in a very different context,” she said. 

The early wave of immigrants began to stall in the early 1900s when laws were passed prohibiting the use of foreign languages. This initiated the divide that continues today over the benefits and challenges of welcoming new citizens. Over the past century, Nebraska and the rest of the United States have followed a similar pattern of welcoming immigrants until various factors lead to restricted immigration policies.

Immigration in Nebraska follows the theme for the seventh season of Heuermann Lectures, “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally.” According to Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Harlan Vice Chancellor Mike Boehm, the lecture season will focus on global challenges and their impact on Nebraska’s past, present and future. 

“As uncomfortable as some of these discussions may be, they are worth having now so that we can be proactive in our own communities and advance Nebraska,” Boehm said. 

Heuermann Lectures are funded by a gift from B. Keith and Norma Heuermann of Phillips. The Heuermanns are longtime university supporters with a strong commitment to Nebraska’s production agriculture, natural resources, rural areas and people. 

Lectures are streamed live at http://heuermannlectures.unl.edu and air live on campus channel 4. They are archived after the event and later air on NET2 World.

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