The postwar years led to technological improvements in farm methods and machinery. Over the years Nebraska’s small farmers found it difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with the technological advances and output of larger agricultural corporations. By the 1980s out-migration had devastated the state. Small communities disappeared, whereas others barely survived. That decade marked a loss of over 100,000 individuals across the state. In 1986 the state, and in particular the community of Lexington, in Dawson County, began to experience a rebound. With its relocation to the rural community of Lexington, Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) attempted to recruit a local labor force. However, out-migration resulted in low unemployment figures, thus the pool of available employees was limited. Moreover, the dangerous nature of the job and low benefit packages did not attracted most white Nebraskans. By 1992 the ethnic composition of IBP employees had changed drastically. At start-up, 81 percent of the employees were non-Latino, but by 1992 only 37 percent of the workforce was made up of non-Latinos.11
The Latino population continued to grow throughout the 1990s. According to the 1990 U.S. census, 1,578,385 individuals comprised the total population of the state.12 Out of this total, 36,969, or 2.3 percent, identified themselves as Hispanic/Latino, of which 29,665, or 1.9 percent, claimed Mexican origin. Clearly, Mexicans constituted the largest Latino group in the state, and they continue to do so today. Some new Latino migrants participated in a sample survey in Lexington to measure household composition. This survey determined that men headed 80 percent of the households. Of those, 62 percent were born in Mexico, 24 percent were born in Guatemala, and 11 percent were born in the United States.13 Guatemalans comprise the second-largest group of Latinos in the state.
Latest statistics from the U.S. 2000 census indicate that the entire state is undergoing a reorganization of ethnicities.14 The Latino population in Adams County, located in the south central region of the state, witnessed an increase of 1,125 Latinos, as compared to a gain of only 367 whites. Latinos now make up 5.2 percent of the county’s total population. The case of Colfax County is dramatic. Employment available in the slaughterhouses and processing plants of Madison County resulted in a gain of 2,508 Latinos and a loss of 469 whites. In this county Latinos comprise 14.2 percent of the population. Other counties in the state have demonstrated the same trend. Hall County gained 204 whites and 5,381 Latinos. In this county, Latinos primarily live within or in close proximity to the city of Grand Island. Latinos now represent 11.3 percent of the total population of Douglas County, and 17.2 percent of Lancaster County is of Latino origin.15
As stated, Mexicans are the largest Latino group. The ranking order of other Latin groups is as follows: Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians, and Hondurans. The location of these groups is as diverse as their ethnicities. Whether in the city of Omaha or on its periphery, Douglas County contains the most cosmopolitan mix of Latinos. All subgroups are represented in the county. Mexicans and Guatemalans make their homes in Colfax County. Adams County is the least cosmopolitan, with a Latino population primarily composed of Mexicans and Cubans. This is just a sample of the more populous counties within the state. The official total population of the state recorded in the 2000 census is 1,711,263. Of this figure, 94,425 are listed as Hispanic/Latino, which does not include subgroups who self-reported as other on the U.S. census. Some experts believe the actual number of Latinos in Nebraska well exceeds the official number. For various reasons, many new arrivals do not respond to the questionnaires. The nature of the work in the industries and in agriculture also contributes to the many families left unreported. Migrants continue to enter the state on a daily basis, and their numbers increase during specific harvest seasons.
Politically, the addition of Latinos to the population and the increase in the black population have sustained congressional representation. Without these groups, the state would surely have lost U.S. representatives. However, the state faces difficult issues. The large influx of Latinos puts strains on smaller communities that are ill equipped and underfunded. Housing shortages, increased school enrollments, and the lack of adequate health care facilities has torn some communities apart. In these communities racism persists, causing many to believe that the increase in crime and low wages are the direct fault of the migrants. Government and private agencies scramble to assist and accommodate new arrivals. Most new migrants are men who spend a few nights in local shelters until they secure permanent housing, after which many send for their families.
Nebraska schools have witnessed significant increases in enrollment. For example, between 1990 and 1995 the student enrollment in Lexington increased by 44 percent. Schools in Omaha also dealt with significant increases. Communities responded by adding rooms and teachers. In order to keep up with the needs of the new migrants, Nebraska’s state government has applied for more federal grants. Unfortunately, Latinos comprise one of the poorest groups in Nebraska, just above Native Americans. Low wages and lack of health insurance benefits through employers force many Latinos into the Medicaid system. In order to feed their families, many have no choice but to depend on food stamps. Typically, Latino families are larger than Anglo-American families, and their pay does not cover most basic necessities.
Regardless of societal problems and pressures, communities survived and thrived with the addition of Latinos. However, this balance was challenged in the 1990s. In 1992 the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) embarked on a vigorous campaign to seek out and deport undocumented workers. Periodic raids conducted on Midwest plants threatened the fragile economic base of agricultural communities. In 1998 the INS targeted the state of Nebraska. The INS specifically targeted meat processing plants in the state. In a program called Operation Vanguard, the INS subpoenaed records from the Social Security Administration and from employers. They then conducted raids and interviews based on conflicting information. A year later the program was suspended because of the objections raised by the Social Security Administration, employers, and the public.
Prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance still linger, but conditions are improving. The practice of stereotyping all darker-skinned Spanish-speaking peoples is common. Coinciding with this is the prejudice and discrimination that Mexican Americans are subjected to on a daily basis. Locals, unexposed to diverse backgrounds, are often unable to discern between families that have been in the United States for generations and newer arrivals. Religious institutions, government, and community agencies work hard to promote tolerance and diversity. Legislators work hard in producing legislative bills that benefit all Nebraskans regardless of ethnicity. Despite economic pressures and sociological differences, Nebraskans are learning to live side-by-side with their new neighbors.