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O'Neill rally

Bryan Corkle, a science teacher and wrestling coach in O'Neill, speaks during a rally Wednesday at the courthouse in support of immigrants after ICE raids in the northeast Nebraska town.

During an interview with the Journal Star on a recent visit to Lincoln, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explained the agency’s major shift on its new, more selective policy.

Lee Cissna emphasized the ongoing transition to a merit-based system that prioritizes “highly needed skills” and “people who come to help meet our economic or national needs or interests.”

However, the more restrictive policy doesn’t match up to the economic needs of the workforce in Lincoln or Nebraska. In fact, it does the opposite. The capital city and state as a whole are at or near full employment, with the real shortfalls being in blue-collar industries where the very immigrants the White House wants to de-emphasize play a major role.

When immigration policy is this divorced from reality, problems pop up like weeds. And this disparity went on very visible display in Lincoln earlier this summer.

Residents complained about the deteriorating condition of the city’s streetscapes. Many medians across Lincoln were overrun by weeds after spring maintenance never occurred. City officials pinned their struggles on a lack of available workers – and explicitly cited a crackdown on immigrant labor by the Trump administration as a prime cause for these scruffy showpieces.

Behind the scenes, too, Lincoln employers endured difficulty hiring in industries that don’t necessarily require college degrees, such as manufacturing, transportation and construction, according to a new report by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Fewer workers existed than jobs, even when accounting for the city’s strong inward migration.

Meanwhile, the same report noted the capital city had a glut of white-collar workers, with between two to five times more potential employees than jobs in many fields.

Cissna’s remarks came mere days before Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted a raid, arresting 133 workers primarily on farm operations in O’Neill and five other Nebraska towns. From coast to coast, the ag industry – which has long leaned heavily on migrant labor for field work – has detailed a workforce shortage that has intensified under Trump.

While the desire to tip the scales in favor of high-skills immigrants is understandable, it fails to address or exacerbates the actual workforce situation in Lincoln and elsewhere. The jobs that would hire new immigrants seeking the American dream are more in need of workers than those the White House wants to prioritize.

National immigration reform has, sadly, been a nonstarter for two reasons. Some employers take advantage of undocumented labor, as ICE alleged in its Nebraska raids, while Congress lacks the political will for the compromise needed to secure the votes to advance any type of common-sense improvements.

These situations highlight the need for a program to allow both legal and undocumented immigrants to enter the workforce above board. Unfortunately, the actions – and, likewise, inaction – from in Washington lead in the opposite direction of what’s needed for Lincoln and Nebraska.

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