Foreign-born Huskers contribute 8% of state economic input, report says

Nebraska immigrants and refugees seen as potential ‘economic powerhouse’ and workforce supply source not fully tapped

By: - May 22, 2023 5:45 am

Construction workers are seen on a job site. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — Immigrants and refugees contribute 8% of the state’s overall economic output and have potential to grow into what one policy expert called an “economic powerhouse” that helps fill unmet workforce demand felt more deeply in Nebraska than many states.

“That’s a really sizable portion of our economy,” Rebecca Firestone, executive director of Nebraska’s OpenSky Policy Institute, said of a demographic she described as often hidden and underestimated. “And we’re not tapping full potential.”

Rebecca Firestone, executive director of OpenSky Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank in Nebraska. (Courtesy of OpenSky)

She and other Nebraska policy experts and community leaders commented in light of a new report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Immigration Research Initiative that delved into state-centric data about the foreign-born.

According to the IRI, more than 145,000 immigrants and refugees live in Nebraska. They account for 9% of the labor force and 8% of state earnings. The analysis was based on five-year census data and includes people born in another country and living in the U.S., no matter their legal status.

While Nebraska’s foreign-born are represented across the economic spectrum, the report revealed a disproportionate share, 37%, working in low-wage jobs such as the service and production industries — compared to the 24% share of the state’s U.S.-born workers who earn the same lower wages.

That puts Nebraska among the 10 states with the largest share of foreign-born workers who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage.

On the other hand, the IRI data show that 8% of Nebraska’s foreign-born workers are in the upper-wage earner category.

Inclusive, targeted policies

Saying immigration is a key to Nebraska growth, IRI and OpenSky highlight the need for more inclusive and targeted policies to improve opportunities for those who move to the Husker state.

OpenSky, a think tank that conducts Nebraska-focused fiscal research, cited a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which said that international residents historically have been a larger component of Nebraska population growth than incoming migration from other states.

From the 1990s through 2015, immigration to Nebraska increased annually by about 5%. But starting in 2017, immigration to the Husker state, as well as the nation, fell steadily.

Had Nebraska continued to add residents from abroad at the same rate prior to 2016, Federal Reserve economists Nate Kauffman and John McCoy said, the state’s population by last year may have increased by an additional 19,000 individuals.

If there is an overrepresentation of a group in poverty, that is problematic.

– Lina Traslaviña Stover, Heartland Workers Center

The economists said that in addition to wooing talent from across the country, immigration is key to addressing Nebraska’s labor shortage, which they said is more pronounced than in many other states.

“As the labor force for most demographic groups has largely recovered to, or exceeded, pre-pandemic levels, external sources of labor supply may be significant in addressing ongoing worker shortages,” said their report on Nebraska’s labor scarcity.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Josie Schafer of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research says her census-based research shows foreign-born people in Nebraska with a higher labor participation rate than the state’s U.S.-born population, about 73% versus 69%.

Perhaps more pertinent to the current labor crunch, Schafer said, is that low-wage service and production jobs more likely to be filled by the foreign-born also are the jobs that today have a high rate of openings in Nebraska. 

“So this population is crucial to our economy and filling the jobs we have open,” she said.

Up to 80,000 jobs unfilled

The spotlight on immigration comes as the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an Omaha Together One Community-led coalition also step up efforts to urge a more open door to foreign-born workers. 

Bryan Slone, president of the statewide business Chamber, says that up to 80,000 jobs are unfilled in Nebraska — a challenging scenario for employers given that the state has one of the highest labor participation and lowest unemployment rates in the nation.

Bryan Slone
Bryan Slone, president of Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Slone believes that workforce needs across the country at some point are going to demand that Congress change laws to allow greater flow of legal immigration.

“It will be a question of which states are able to attract and retain immigrants,” he said, adding that Nebraska should be ready with improved affordable housing, child care and other services that entice workers and families. 

Firestone said Nebraska has room to improve policies that make it easier for new arrivals to thrive. She pointed to two measures before state lawmakers.

Legislative Bill 199, for example, proposes to amend Nebraska’s driver’s license act to provide a “driving privilege card” for certain foreigners authorized to be in the U.S.

Introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, the bill, aimed originally at Ukrainian refugees who settled in Nebraska but are ineligible for an ordinary driver’s license, has advanced to the full Legislature for discussion.

LB 62, introduced by State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, would provide reimbursement for translation and interpretation services under the state’s medical assistance program. Such services currently are mandated under the Medicaid Program but are not reimbursed.

That measure, however, did not make it out of the Legislature’s committee stage. 

‘A lot of gaps’

Leah Whitney Chavez, founder of the Omaha-based World Speaks, sees language and cultural gaps so great that she has built a nonprofit around trying to bridge those differences.

The organization, founded in 2016, offers language courses, translation and interpretation services, growing to the point of a new headquarters move planned this summer.

Whitney Chavez, noting that 109 languages are represented in Omaha public schools, said the area has a ways to go to become a place where non-English-speaking residents can thrive.

“There are just a lot of gaps in our community,” she said, adding that language accessibility services are among those that make an area inviting to new arrivals.

Lina Traslaviña Stover, executive director of the statewide Heartland Workers Center, said she was not surprised to see the IRI findings, as she said that immigrants do much of the heavy lifting for some of Nebraska’s biggest agricultural- and production-based industries.

Lina Traslaviña Stover, executive director of the statewide Heartland Workers Center (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

What is concerning to her, though, is when foreign-born workers become an “underclass.” 

“If there is an overrepresentation of a group in poverty, that is  problematic,” Stover said.

States vary in services and benefits offered to the foreign-born, as well as to subsets of that group who lack permanent legal status.

While Nebraska allows undocumented students who attended and graduated from local high schools to pay the same tuition as “in-state” classmates, it has not taken the step that some other states have: offering state financial aid.

The National Legal Immigration Center says that 80% of the nation’s foreign-born population live in states with tuition equity laws or policies. 

OpenSky’s Firestone said state leaders often talk about how to attract people to Nebraska. Historically speaking, she said, immigrants come to Nebraska. Last year, Nebraska was among the top three states for the share of refugees resettled per capita.

“It’s a potential economic powerhouse for the state,” Firestone said.


Huskers top nation in refugees per capita over decade

Nebraska ranks No. 1 in the nation for the share of refugees resettled over the past decade compared to the overall state population, according to an analysis by the Immigration Research Initiative.

Refugees are a subset of the foreign-born. They are people who the U.S. government has determined have a well-founded fear of persecution. They’ve gone through extensive vetting, according to the IRI, and typically have waited years before arriving in the U.S.

(Courtesy of Refugee Empowerment Center)

Each year, a cap on the number of refugee arrivals is set by presidential determination.

The IRI said refugee arrivals during President Donald Trump’s administration declined from 85,000 in 2016 to 12,000 in 2020. In 2022, the total climbed to 25,000.

By the measure of refugee arrivals per 100,000 people in a state, over a 10-year period, Nebraska topped the list, followed by North Dakota, Idaho, Kentucky and South Dakota.

For 2022 alone, Nebraska ranked third among states for refugee resettlement per capita. Kentucky was first; Idaho, second.

Looking at raw numbers, states that received the most refugees over the 10-year period were Texas, California, New York and Michigan. 

Top countries of origin for refugees nationally over that time frame include Myanmar (Burma), Iraq, Bhutan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Ukraine.

The U.S. refugee resettlement program is a public-private partnership of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the Department of Health and Human Services and nine national resettlement agencies. 

~ Cindy Gonzalez, Nebraska Examiner senior reporter


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.