By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — While Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers quoted Jesus at a press conference in the State Capitol, Tammy Brown of Cozad stood beside Interstate 80 holding a sign that said “Close the Borders” Friday morning.
As Chambers quoted the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming poem, Brown worried about the diseases that could come with the 214 unaccompanied immigrant children that have been picked up at the southern U.S. border since October and placed in Nebraska.
Brown joined a group of about 10 Nebraskans who held flags and signs protesting the recent surge of illegal immigrants — particularly Central American children — overwhelming the nation’s border and Texas facilities.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns confirmed that federal officials told him in late June that so-called border children have been placed with relatives and sponsors in Nebraska. They’re part of some 52,000 children who’ve crossed the border since October — double the prior year.
Gov. Dave Heineman has publicly complained that federal authorities won’t give him information about the children’s whereabouts in Nebraska. And while Chambers and other activists called on Heineman and others to ratchet down the rhetoric on what they see as a refugee crisis, Brown and other protesters took it up a notch.
“They’re going to bring diseases,” Brown said. “Send ’em back.”
Chambers called Heineman a right-wing ideologue and said the children shouldn’t be treated like invading locusts.
Lona Ferguson, of Miller, was on the governor’s side, saying she doesn’t understand how the federal government can refuse to give him information about the undocumented kids.
“Why are they hiding these children?” she asked. “Why does our government lie to us?”
Melba Kuntzelman, 78, of Hastings, said several of her friends quit teaching because so many children couldn’t speak English and they couldn’t speak Spanish.
About five miles away in Grand Island, a city of about 50,000, Superintendent Robert Winter anticipates 50 to 60 undocumented children will enroll in his schools this year, based on the roughly 50 who showed up last year — about five times more than usual.
The school district has a “welcome center” for non-English speaking students, and it began seeing a surge in Central American children in 2012, the year Hispanic students began outnumbering white. The school district is required by law to educate the children.
“This is not new to us,” said Jack Sheard, communications coordinator for Grand Island schools. “We educate kids. We don’t get into the politics of who we educate.”
Kuntzelman said Schuyler is “saturated” with Hispanics who work in meatpacking plants.
“I’m a great grandmother — my heart goes out to kids,” she said. But she fears the influx of illegal immigrants will clog schools, prisons and welfare rolls.
Omaha immigration attorney Amy Peck said she finds it appalling people don’t recognize the border surge as a humanitarian crisis not unlike what’s happened in Sudan and Syria. Conservatives and Christians should be stepping up to help children fleeing violence, murder and mayhem, she said.
Jess Valdez, an 83-year-old Army veteran who protested by the interstate for two hours, held a sign saying “Regulated immigration is not racist, hateful or xenophobic.” He blames illegal immigration for displacing American workers and providing cheap labor.
He bristles when asked if he’s Hispanic.
“I’m an American!” he said. His parents came to the United States from Mexico legally in the early 1900s. He served in the Korean and Vietnam wars before returning to Grand Island in 1994.
“I was doing my duty and at the same time they were letting the country go to hell,” he said.
For Sheard, the border crisis is not a new phenomena.
“We’ve been working with unaccompanied minors for a number of years,” he said. “We find ways to make it work. We are fortunate for every kid we have.”
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