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Leigh cattleman Chuck Folken never forgot what happened in Grand Island two weeks before Christmas 2006.

That’s when federal immigration agents raided the Swift meatpacking plant and rounded up hundreds of undocumented workers.

“They took away mothers and fathers and left numerous children in Grand Island without parents,” Folken said Monday. “And, frankly, that bothered me.”

Events of half a dozen years ago help explain why the former Nebraska Cattlemen president volunteered to chair an immigration task force for the state’s largest livestock organization in 2012 -- and why he’s anxious to know what will come of President Barack Obama’s remarks on immigration reform during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

“It’s time,” said Folken, whose family employs several Hispanic workers at its 10,000-head feedlot in Colfax County. “We have to get something done on this.”

At the national level, Republicans and Democrats appear ready to act on legislation that would strengthen enforcement of immigration law and create a path to citizenship or long-term legal work status  for as many as 11 million non-citizens.

At the Nebraska level, livestock producers are among employers who have trouble finding people willing to work hard in rural settings and among the advocates of a friendlier policy for immigrants.

The Nebraska Cattlemen, for example, known for their conservative stance on many issues, are endorsing a non-seasonal guest worker program and permanent residence for eligible immigrants.

“I was amazed, at our convention, how many people came up to me, patted me on the back and said this was long overdue,” Folken said, “that it was time our association did something.”

He said the several Hispanics among his eight employees are “very, very good workers” and sorely needed in labor-intensive settings in agriculture.

“We’re a seven-days-a-week job 52 weeks a year,” he said of his family’s feedlot. “We have to have people here every morning.”

It takes time to teach people to operate feed mixers, feed trucks and other equipment, and seasonal status for workers won’t work.

“It puts a tremendous burden on us to have to hire, and six months later, they leave, and we have to rehire people. There’s significant cost and a lot of risk in that for us.”

The Obama administration already has adopted, on its own, a policy known officially as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

It offers lawful status for as many as two years to residents 30 and younger who were brought across the border illegally by their parents when they were younger than 16 and who meet several other criteria, including five years of residency and no felony convictions.

The Immigration Service Center in Lincoln is one of four regional centers in the United States involved in processing more than 400,000 applications for that program since it was created in June 2012. More than 95 percent of the applications have been approved.

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Nebraska is not among the top 10 states of residence for those applying, but Lincoln immigration attorney Robert Eckerson and immigration advocate Darcy Tromanhauser of Nebraska Appleseed are monitoring the results.

“I’ve had several of these cases,” Eckerson said, “all approved or still pending.”

He has not seen as many as he had expected.

“I think many people are still a little skeptical or scared to turn themselves in,” he said. “Or they may be waiting for some big, new immigration reform bill. Deferred action permits are temporary, and we don’t know what will happen in two years.”

On overall immigration reform, he said, “I’m more optimistic than I have been in 18 years in this business. But I thought we would get reform before, and it never happened, so I will believe it when I see it.”

Tromanhauser -- one of the outsiders invited to join the Nebraska Cattlemen task force -- could not cite numbers on the permits either, but she said, “We’ve definitely seen a lot of folks applying” and “a lot of enthusiasm and interest.”

She hopes it’s a sign of more to come from policymakers.

“I think more and more folks are realizing we’re living with sadly outdated immigration laws that don’t serve our interest or our values.”

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com

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