As of 2012, a record number of 141,913 Hispanics of Mexican origin resided in Nebraska—up from 29,665 in 1990—according to the analysis of Census Bureau data by the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This estimate includes 49,429 Mexican immigrants, who account for almost half of the state’s foreign-born population. The remaining two-thirds of the Mexican-origin population represent US citizens of Mexican descent, mostly children, which make up a growing share of the total Mexican-origin population in the state.
Hispanics, and especially those of Mexican origin, are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the nation, and not surprisingly in Nebraska as well. But despite the volume and novelty of this demographic shift, Nebraska has always had a Mexican side. The story of this side merits closer attention in order to understand how subsequent waves of immigration in the nation shaped the composition of this state’s population and could mold its future.
A Brief History of Mexican Immigration to Nebraska
Before telling the story of Mexican immigration to Nebraska, it is important to highlight two key facts. First, the presence of the Mexican-origin population in the United States does not start with immigration. Approximately one hundred thousand Spanish-speaking people lived in the southwestern territory that was annexed to the United States after the end of the US-Mexico war. And second, the history of immigration in Nebraska does not start with migration from Mexico. Prior to 1900, Nebraska received a large number of immigrants from Europe. The peak year was 1890 when the 202,542 immigrants accounted for a quarter of the Nebraska population, and less than 100 were from Mexico. Therefore, many of the historical patterns of Mexican immigration in Nebraska do not parallel those observed nationally.
Immigration from Mexico to the United States has gone through four main waves. Out of these four, only the first and the fourth waves led to significant increases of Mexican-born population in Nebraska.
The first wave of Mexican immigration occurred prior to World War II, motivated by increasing demand for agricultural workers along with political unrest in Mexico. Mexican immigrants to the United States rose from 105,200 in 1900 to 624,400 in 1930. In Nebraska, Mexican immigrants increased from 299 in 1910 to 6,321 in 1930 according to historical US census data. The 1930 census year was the only time when the number of Mexican-born (4,015) surpassed US-born population of Mexican descent (2,306) in Nebraska.
Immigrants from Mexico in the state accounted for a negligible proportion of the 119,199 foreign-born population in Nebraska in 1930. Most of these immigrants came through Kansas City from Texas, hired by railroad recruiters at the border. While Mexican immigrants were initially a seasonal population, a significant share settled in Nebraska, working in the sugar beet industry in Scotts Bluff County and meatpacking plants in south Omaha.
During the Great Depression, migration to the United States and Nebraska hit a record low. In Nebraska, the total immigrant population from 1930 to 1940 decreased by half. Due to forced deportations and overall discrimination, among other causes, the number of Mexican immigrants in the state declined more severely, from 4,016 in 1930 to 1,710 in 1940.
The second national wave was ushered in by the Bracero program, which lasted from 1942 to 1964, and brought an important number of temporary agricultural guest workers to the US from Mexico. In contrast to Texas and California, the number of Mexican immigrants during this period did not increase significantly in Nebraska relative to 1940. The end of the Bracero program and further restrictions on immigration from the Americas steered the third wave nationally. This wave, which lasted from 1965 to the mid-1980s, was characterized by a larger number of unauthorized migrant workers in the United States. Similar to what happened in the previous wave, Mexican immigration to Nebraska continued to be low.
Although Mexican migration to Nebraska was low from 1940 to almost 1980, the Mexican-origin population in the state quadrupled during that time. Largely due to the increase of the US-born population of Mexican descent in the state, the total number of Mexican-origin residents rose from 5,500 in 1940 to 22,431 in 1980. During these four decades, the Mexican American community built important institutions in the state. A few of those in Omaha are the construction of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church in 1944, the creation of the Indian-Chicano Health Center in 1970, and the Chicano Awareness Center in 1971—respectively known now as the One World Community Health Centers and Latino Center of the Midlands.
The passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 triggered a fourth immigration wave. IRCA legalized 2.3 million Mexican workers, many of whom were able to bring and reunite with their immediate family members. IRCA also toughened border enforcement and increased penalties to employers of unauthorized workers. As crossing the border back and forth became more difficult, these restrictions created more incentives for unauthorized workers to settle with their families in the United States. At the same time, the restructuring of many industries facilitated job opportunities for low-skilled migrant workers beyond agriculture and in nontraditional Hispanic immigrant states. In Nebraska, a key driver in the rise of Mexican migration was the restructuring and relocation of the meatpacking plants in smaller cities across Nebraska. From a total of 4,605 in 1990, Mexican immigrants rose to 29,168 in 2000, accounting for two-thirds of the growth of the Mexican-origin population in that decade. As Mexican workers settled in the state, they also brought or started their families in the state. During the 1990s, the US-born population of Mexican descent doubled, and it has continued to grow at an even sharper pace ever since.
Similar to the trends observed nationwide, Mexican migration has slowed down in Nebraska since 2005. The number of people of Mexican origin moving into Nebraska for the period of 2008–12 represent only a fifth of the total number observed in 2000—which rounded to twenty-one thousand at that time. Mexican-origin population is even less likely to come directly from abroad. For the period of 2008–12, 80 percent of Mexican-origin people who moved in the state came from other US states, primarily California.
As waves come and go, most of the growth of this population in the upcoming decades may not take place at airports or border gateways but within the state’s hospitals rooms. Close to half of the Mexican-origin population is seventeen years old or younger. US-born children of immigrants and immigrant children comprise two-thirds of the total Mexican-origin population under eighteen years old. The social and economic conditions of this growing generation are inevitably shaped by the immigration status of their parents. The Migration Policy Institute estimated that around twenty-six thousand unauthorized immigrants from Mexico resided in Nebraska in 2012. This estimate represents half of the state’s Mexican immigrant population for that year.
How Are Mexican-origin Families Doing Today Compared to 2000?
Compared to the year 2000, the socioeconomic status of the Mexican-origin population in Nebraska today shows both significant improvements and worrisome trends.
Overall, English proficiency, levels of educational attainment, and homeownership have increased among the Mexican-origin population in Nebraska since 2000. Only one-third of the Mexican-origin population lives in “English-only” speaking households. However, the share of the Mexican-origin population that declares speaking English well or very well has increased from 61 percent in 2000 to 68 percent for the period of 2008–12.
A little more than a quarter of the Mexican-origin population today has more than a high school education compared to just 8 percent in 2000.
Half of the Mexican-origin population owns the house in which they live. Homeownership increased 2 percent since 2000—a modest but significant increase considering the recent economic downturn.
Still, unemployment, shrinking household incomes, and poverty characterize the experience of many Mexican-origin households and individuals. From 2000 to the period of 2008–12, the Mexican-origin population’s unemployment rate has remained at 9 percent, a rate that is double the state’s rate of 4 percent.
Median household income for Mexican-origin households ($39,000) has decreased by 11 percent since 2000 and still lags behind the median household income for Nebraska overall (at around $51,000). The poverty rate of 24 percent for the Mexican-origin population increased 4 percent, doubling the state rate of 12 percent.
More importantly, an unusual rise of one-parent households has been noticed since 2000. From 2000 to the period of 2008–12, the number of household headed by one parent without a spouse present rose 7 percent, reaching 29 percent for all Mexican-origin headed households. Virtually all of this growth is due to the precarious status of immigrant-headed households. The share of female-headed immigrant households with no husband present rose from 8 percet in 2000 to 19 percent during the period of 2008–12. This trend could be attributed to the increasing number of deportations, which have mostly affected Mexican immigrant men.
Important advances but also hardships—either due to economic struggles or anti-immigrant policies—are forging the future of an important proportion of the upcoming generation of Nebraskans of Mexican descent. It is more important than ever to take measures aimed at improving the odds of success for this rising generation. Ensuring that their families stay together through a more humane approach to immigration policy could be just one of them.
For more information, read the full report at www.unomaha.edu/ollas.