In an interview in office number 1403 in the State Capitol, Sen. Charlie Janssen doesn't offer much insight about why a first-term senator would make immigration — inherently contentious and complicated — his pet issue. There's no Minuteman poster on his wall. No United States map with a red target. Instead, there are drawings from school kids with Latino names thanking him for a visit; not the decorations one might expect in the office of someone who in fewer than three years in the Unicameral has made enemies of just about every Latino-advocacy organization in the state.
“[Immigration] should be important to everybody,” says the 40-year-old Navy veteran. “I was elected to solve problems, not to ignore problems and to pass the buck.”
Reasonable people on both sides of the immigration issue largely agree that an estimated 11 million people living off the books in this country represent a problem. Critics say Janssen's solution, LB 48, creates more problems than it solves. Modeled after the 2009 Arizona law whose constitutionality is being challenged before the Supreme Court, it would require local law enforcement, when enforcing other laws, to determine the immigration status of people they have reasonable suspicion to believe are in the country illegally. It would give police authority to detain people and transport them into federal custody. The Legislature's Judiciary Committee will conduct a public hearing on the measure March 2 at 1:30 p.m. in the state Capitol.
“It's clear that this brings many new costs and problems and it doesn't actually fix anything,” says Darcy Tromanhauser, executive director of Nebraska Appleseed, a public advocacy law firm that supports comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. The group is working to fight LB 48, as well as the Fremont ordinance passed last June that would make it illegal to hire or rent housing to undocumented immigrants. The ordinance was immediately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Enforcement of the ordinance has been delayed pending outcome of the litigation.
A Nickerson, Neb., native, Janssen was on the Fremont City Council in 2008 when it introduced the first version of the ordinance. That year, he was elected to the Unicameral, replacing his uncle, Ray Janssen, who served the 15th District (which includes Fremont) for 16 years until being term limited out of office. The younger Janssen made immigration his legislative priority. He attempted but failed to defund the Latino-American and Native American commissions. “I'm not saying those organizations don't have a mission,” he told the Fremont Tribune in January. “I just don't think it needs to be taxpayer funded.”
This month, the Education Committee voted 6-1 to kill LB 657, Janssen's third attempt to repeal Nebraska's Dream Act. The law allows in-state tuition rates for some undocumented students who live in the state for at least three years, graduate from a Nebraska high school or obtaining a GED, and pledge to pursue legal status. Opponents of Janssen's bill included some of the state's foremost education and social groups, as well as Somos Republicans, which claims to be the nation's largest Hispanic Republican organization. It was the second run-in the Republican lawmaker had with Somos Republicans this year. In January, he drew fire for using the term “anchor baby” in an interview with the Fremont Tribune when referring to children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrant parents. Janssen is a member of a national coalition of state senators working to repeal the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants citizenship to native-born children.
“Janssen is being insensitive and his actions are reprehensible,” Somos Republicans wrote in a press release Jan. 5. “The term 'anchor baby' is equivalent to other defamatory terms such as 'wetback,' 'pickaninny,' 'kike' and 'tar baby.'”
During the course of our half-hour interview — which was interrupted once by a call from the governor — Janssen’s face turns increasingly red and his voice rises slightly when he’s asked about reports of harassment submitted from Latino citizens in Fremont since that city's ordinance was adopted. He enunciates forcefully when he says it is an “out-and-out lie .” And when asked about law enforcement concerns that LB 48 could sour Latino community's trust in police, he replies, “Well, don't come here illegally.” The anchor baby question was last on my list. But when Janssen gets a call to vote, says he'll have to cut our interview short and stands up to leave the room, I tell him I have just one more question.
Nativists and Gorillas
“The 800-pound gorilla here is the majority of [undocumented immigrants are] coming from south of the border,” Janssen says. His critics, including Nebraska Appleseed and One Fremont One Future, a grassroots organization formed to oppose Fremont's ordinance, say immigration is a federal issue that should be dealt with through comprehensive legislation from Congress. Janssen, and many other conservative lawmakers and groups, are sick of waiting for a Congress that lacks the stomach for reform. Lawmakers have pushed local or state immigration laws in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and other states.
A common link in many of these cases is Kris Kobach, recently elected secretary of state in Kansas. Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's chief advisor on immigration and border security, Kobach has worked since 2004 as chief legal counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute — the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
The Southern Poverty Law Center has long listed FAIR as a hate group because of its leaders' ties to supremacist groups and eugenicists. Kobach has helped write and defend ordinances in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Texas, Kansas and Fremont, Neb., targeting undocumented immigrants. And he's made thousands of dollars helping the cities defend the laws in court, according to Southern Poverty Law Center. Hazleton, Pa., has spent more than $2.8 million unsuccessfully defending its ordinance that would require proof of citizenship to rent homes in the city. Farmers Branch, Texas, has spent more than $3.7 million for its residency law, upon which a judge has placed a permanent injunction (the city is appealing the decision). Valley Park, Mo., spent more than $270,000 for a watered-down version of its ordinance which would fine employers who hire undocumented immigrants without verifying their status through the federal E-Verify system. Kobach says he's working without pay for the City of Fremont, which estimates it will spend about $750,000 to defend its ordinance. Adopted by voters last June, the ordinance is still on hold.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund immediately sued the city, saying the ordinance was discriminatory. It's going to be at least another year before that case is settled. U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp last week scheduled an April 2012 trial. Arizona's governor's office said the state had spent more than $1 million at the end of July 2010 to defend its state law, which is still in court. It is the country's most stringent statute targeting undocumented immigrants, requiring police officers to check immigration status of suspected undocumented persons. A federal judge has blocked that section of the law, which critics say would lead to racial profiling.
A similar provision is in Janssen's Nebraska-focused answer to the 800-pound gorilla. Modeled after the Arizona bill, it would require police officers, when enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of people they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe are in the country illegally. Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning helped craft the law. His office did not respond to The Reader's requests for comment. Gov. Dave Heineman, a Fremont native, does not have a position on the bill to announce, his office told The Reader .
The bill doesn't include any fiscal notes to show how much it would cost to implement and defend — Janssen acknowledges it would surely be challenged. Mike Nolan of the League of Nebraska Municipalities said at a rally at the Capitol Jan. 27 that his organization has “serious concerns about the unfunded mandate this would impose on towns and local police across the state. It would create serious financial risk for our towns and also potentially damaging social costs.”
Omaha State Sen. Brenda Council says the bill would promote racial profiling. It includes a disclaimer stating that law enforcement officials should not base reasonable suspicion “solely upon a person's race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Council says, “The mere fact that you say 'should not rely solely' is an indication that that's going to be one of the primary factors, is the race or ethnicity.”
Janssen says if an officer is profiling, they're not doing their job. “That's never going to go away,” he says. “But do we not enact or try to enforce our laws based solely on that?”
Council calls that defense disingenuous. “What police officer in the state of Nebraska is going to ask a European Caucasian to show papers evidencing that they're lawfully present in the United States?” she says. “The only people who are going to be asked that question are going to be people of color.”
Former Los Angeles police chief and New York City police commissioner William Bratton says LB 48 and the Arizona immigration law could decrease community trust in police. He says turning police into arms of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement will mean undocumented immigrants will be less likely to report crimes for fear of deportation. “We must have new and effective national immigration policies, not a hodgepodge of state laws that weaken — rather than strengthen — the strong partnerships between local police and the diverse communities they serve and protect,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Omaha World-Herald Jan. 28.
Jannsen counters, “what he calls a hodgepodge, I call taking action. I invite the federal government to do something about it. I invite them to obsolete my LB 48 if it should pass. But they're doing nothing.” He says the bill would send a message to undocumented immigrants that “Nebraska's serious about their illegal immigration laws, and maybe we shouldn't come there. Maybe that shouldn't be the place.”
Tromanhauser interprets the message differently. “It sends a signal that the state is OK with discrimination,” she says. “You have a whole variety of people who would have to pause before considering if they'd come to Nebraska.” Arizona faced boycotts after it approved its law that the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association said cost it at least 40 conventions and $15 million in lodging revenue. A study commissioned by liberal policy group Center for American Progress, and conducted by a respected economic consulting firm, found in November that losses of convention bookings following the law's passage could cost the state $253 million in economic output and more than $86 million in lost wages over two to three years.
“That's another falsehood put out there,” Janssen says. “Arizona's tourism didn't suffer any more than any other state. It was a product of an economic downturn.” At $3.8 billion in 2009, tourism is Nebraska’s third-largest outside revenue source, after agriculture and manufacturing. But comparing that to Arizona's $16.6 billion in 2009, “just doesn't shake out,” he says. “They've got the Grand Canyon. They've got the Arizona Diamondbacks … They've got got Super Bowls down there. It's just massive,” he says. “We're a little more modest in what we have as far as entertainment goes. And our tourism is generated more from an internal combustion engine … “That's what our tourism is. It's not about drawing people in from the outside.” Still, he says, people who boycotted Arizona “missed the point. I hope Arizona's law wasn't made out of hate. It shouldn't have been.”
Costs and Contributions
Nebraska faces a nearly $1 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years. That's a problem. Janssen says LB 48 is a solution. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that in March 2010 about 45,000 undocumented immigrants in Nebraska accounted for about 2.4 percent of the total population. “Education, health care and law enforcement expenses are all increasing at unsustainable rates,” Janssen wrote in a column Jan. 30. “Factoring in the additional expenses to all three areas from illegal immigrants makes it obvious that we must address this problem.”
Most analyses have found the fiscal impact of all immigrants — legal and undocumented — is slightly positive when considering all levels of government. But a 2007 Congressional Budget Office report found that undocumented immigrants probably have a modest negative net impact on state and local budgets after subtracting costs of services from taxes generated. In most cases, the spending for undocumented immigrants accounted for fewer than 5 percent of total state and local spending for those services. It wouldn't fix the two-year budget, but “in the long term, we're going to save money,” Janssen says of his bill. “Because Nebraska will not welcome illegal behavior.”
University of Nebraska-Lincoln economics professor Hendrik van den Berg says it's a myth that undocumented immigrants use services without paying taxes. “It's only in the areas like education and hospital emergency rooms, where explicitly people do not check for IDs that they do gain some services, but they do pay considerable taxes,” he says. Employers take out Social Security and Medicare taxes for services undocumented immigrants can't collect. “The immigrants spend money, and that supports an entire local community. They buy a car. They look for entertainment. They shop and rent housing, and they do spend money.”
Janssen acknowledges that undocumented immigrants pay local sales and property tax. “But I would never concede that they're paying their fair share. If they were, why stay illegal?” he says. “And a bigger issue, they're sending a lot of their money back to their home country — so we're not even turning our own dollars locally, in some cases.”
Pew Hispanic Center reports remittances — money immigrants send back to their home country — range from about 10 to 20 percent. “The rest is spent locally for living and everything else for what immigrants do,” van den Berg says.
War Against Illegals
One of the chief proponents of the Fremont ordinance, Susan Smith is a strong supporter of Janssen's work to fight undocumented immigration. She's an activist herself. In 2006, she founded the Nebraskans Advisory Group, whose website states, “If 30 million Americans showed up in another country ILLEGALLY … it would be called an ACT OF WAR … not a migration!(sic)” The site is a catch-all for far-right issues, including a page promising to update viewers “on the progress of Socialists who are pushing the 'Sustainable Communities' and 'Green' programs,” a page focused on incidents of violence against white people and Christians, and another dedicated to questioning President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
“Illegal aliens, in order to come to this country and stay here, they have to lie, cheat and steal to do that,” Smith says in a phone interview. “An illegal alien is an illegal alien. And they're a problem no matter what country they come from, which language they speak. It doesn't matter. Every illegal alien is taking away from an American or an illegal immigrant and we're having to shoulder the costs of that.”
She says she became passionate about the issue in May 2006, when she saw more than a million undocumented immigrants and their supporters protest around the country as part of the “Great American Boycott,” which called for supporters to abstain from purchasing goods to demonstrate their benefit to the country. It didn't convince Smith. “It made me realize … if we've got illegal aliens in this country at those kinds of numbers,” she says, “… that the government has no idea who they are, where they're from, what their intention is, what their medical background is, what their criminal background is, we've got a problem.” Smith says her ancestors came to the U.S. from Germany through Ellis Island.
Assistant professor of political science and ethnic studies at UNL, Sergio Wals says anti-immigration sentiments in the U.S. go back to Benjamin Franklin in 1753, who wrote that German immigrants “are generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their own nation. … Few of their children in the country learn English.”
Wals says many Americans held anti-immigrant attitudes against the Germans, Irish and Italians who came through Ellis Island during the second wave of immigration — roughly between 1880 and 1924. “The logic of 'us' versus 'them' was in place. And they weren't considered 'white,'” he says. “… This rhetoric has been going on for centuries and research has shown that these groups … it took them roughly three generations to fully assimilate … though, in doing so, they changed the face of America as we know it. “This is the exact same pattern we're seeing with Latinos.”
Janssen says his bill is a start for dealing with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. “You don't roll out a welcome mat and say, 'Hey, come up here. It's OK. We're a sanctuary city. We're not going to look for you. We're not going to deport you if we find you,” he says. “You're welcome to come here legally, through the process. You're not welcome to come here illegally.” Janssen says his bill could encourage undocumented immigrants to flee Nebraska for other Midwestern cities.
Council fears legal citizens will leave as well. “It's not only the people who are unlawfully present in the state who leave, but it's people who are lawfully in the state who leave as well, because they don't want to be subjected to this kind of racism and oppression,” she says.
Ostrom at One Fremont One Future says the city’s ordinance was divisive. The group collected 65 reports last summer of racial harassment of Latinos — none of whom would give their names for fear of retribution. They reported racial taunts, threats to burn their businesses, and BB guns fired at them and their children. “These are Hispanic citizens and immigrants who are legally here, who have similar complaints,” she says. “We're not just talking about people who may be scared about deportation.”
Janssen says the reports are unsubstantiated. “There's been no reports to authorities of any harassment, whatsoever,” he says. “So it's all hearsay.”
Ostrom says many Latinos aren't comfortable sharing their complaints with police. “Some folks are nervous about the police because of the countries they come from,” Ostrom says. “They don't have the same relationship with police — people from Guatemala or El Salvador, Mexico sometimes. Others, because they've had negative experiences or heard of others having negative experiences.”
While One Fremont One Future serves specifically to fight the city's ordinance, members have founded a new organization called Un Fremont Con Dignidad (One Fremont with Dignity) to serve as advocates to the city's Latino population. They want to improve the relationship between police and new community members. Ostrum says LB 48 would further harm that relationship. “Communication breaks down and people are less comfortable going to police,” she says. “It's much more difficult for the police to know the community and to know what's going on if they're serving as enforcement agents.”
Divide or Compact
The same day the Judiciary Committee considers LB 48, it will hear an alternative resolution submitted by Council. Her “Nebraska Compact” is a statement of principles that would direct the Legislature to push Congress to address immigration reform comprehensively. The resolution says local law enforcement should focus on criminal activities, not civil violations of the federal code. It says families should not be unnecessarily separated, and that the Legislature should work to support families and improve health, education and well-being of all Nebraska children.
“Why would we advance a measure that was patterned after a bill, much of which, that was found to be unconstitutional, other than to sensationalize this issue and keep the firestorm brewing over this issue?” she says. “There is a fair and reasonable means of addressing this issue, and we shouldn't be blindly and blithely following along what others are doing. We should do what we believe to be in the best interest to the state of Nebraska.”
Mike Wagner, assistant professor of economics at UNL, says that in Nebraska, being seen as tough on undocumented immigrants is good politics for Republicans. And he doesn't expect to see much compromise between the two camps. He says bills like LB 48 tend to make the politics more emotional and less responsive to deliberation.
“I think that we can see the kerfuffle in Fremont over the last few years …,” he says, “to see how immigration issues can divide communities and can divide different residents of the same state.
“… These kinds of laws certainly serve to divide people on one side or the other — it's hard to have a moderate view, a middle-of-the-road view, on this particular kind of legislation.”
Wagner says if the bill gets through the Judiciary Committee and is passed by the Legislature, the reaction could be similar to that in Arizona, where many liberals view the state with stronger disdain and skepticism, while many conservatives are pleased.
“People in the middle probably won't pay much attention to it, and people who care about politics and really care about immigration will develop hardened attitudes about Nebraska that won't be changeable unless the law changes one way or another,” he says. “As more and more Hispanic and Latino voters move to Nebraska, this bill could have longterm ramifications for political power in the state.” If the bill gets killed this session, he says, then all eyes go to Arizona to see how that case is developing.
Anchor Babies and Foreign Invaders
Janssen's standing in the doorway of his office when asked if he plans to give Somos Republicans that apology — for his anchor baby comments in January to the Fremont Tribune.
"Many people dangerously come over here while they're pregnant just for the simple fact to get the so-called anchor babies," Janssen told the paper. "We've worked all summer long and throughout the fall and winter putting together the proper language for repeal of the 14th Amendment on a statewide level to push it up to the federal level."
He's involved in an effort involving legislators from 41 other states to repeal the 14th Amendment — established in 1868 as a result of the Dred Scott decision — which grants citizenship to people born in the U.S. State Legislators for Legal Immigration founder, Arizona State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, said in a press release in October the group's mission is to “deliver a legislative solution that all 50 states can use to shut off a primary economic faucet that encourages pregnant illegal alien women to sneak across the border to have their babies, and in the process, reclaim hundreds of millions of hard-earned American tax dollars that are being fraudulently handed over to countless foreign invaders.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center says, “Despite the widespread myth of the 'anchor baby' born to undocumented immigrants who use a child to quickly gain citizenship, the law does not allow such a path. Children born in the United States cannot petition for the permanent residency of their parents until age 21.
“Further, there is no data supporting the theory that families have babies as part of a 21-year plan to achieve citizenship. In fact, absent changes to U.S. law, the parents would likely be ineligible to migrate to the United States.”
A report released this month by the Pew Hispanic Center found the vast majority of illegal immigrants who had children in the USA in 2010 had entered the country several years earlier. About 350,000 babies were born in the U.S. between March 2009 and March 2010 to at least one illegal immigrant parent, it found. Of those parents, 91 percent arrived before 2008.
Janssen’s answer to the request for an apology: No. “It's like me taking offense to being called a 'Generation Xer,' he says. “It has no racial overtones to it, whatsoever. You can come from Canada with illegal parents and have a child — that would be an anchor baby. It has nothing to do with what race you are.”