As executive director of Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska (JFON-NE), Emiliano Lerda helps families build productive lives in Nebraska and southwest Iowa, a move that in turn helps to bolster the regional economy.
Take the young immigrant mother of two who fled domestic violence. When the legal team met her, the woman feared for her and her daughters’ safety. After JFON-NE helped her secure a visa, she was able to open a business, a party supplies store. “Their life changed, and not just in the immediacy of being safe,” says Lerda.
The woman is one of nearly 1,200 immigrant entrepreneurs in Nebraska’s Second Congressional district, where the Omaha-based legal advocacy nonprofit is located. Not only are immigrants nationwide more likely to open businesses than are U.S.-born workers, but they are also far more likely to be of working age and to fill unskilled jobs that U.S.-born workers often don’t want. In Lerda’s district, for example, 44.4 percent of the foreign-born population has less than a high-school diploma, compared with just 5.8 percent of the native-born population that does.
I’ve seen time after time how powerful it can be for a community to embrace immigration.
As a result, while immigrants comprise just 8.2 percent of the population in the district, they hold more than 10 percent of jobs in industries with high numbers of low-skilled jobs to fill, such as agriculture, construction and manufacturing. And their work adds up for everyone: Immigrants own 9,306 homes, pay $271.9 million in annual taxes, and hold $847.6 million in annual spending power.
“In states like Nebraska, Iowa, and in other Midwestern states or agricultural rural states, I’ve seen time after time how powerful it can be for a community to embrace immigration,” Lerda says. “The economic benefits that result are numerous: families sending their children to school, paying taxes, opening businesses, shopping at grocery stores, getting gas for their cars.”
Lerda grew up in an agricultural region of Argentina. He first traveled to the United States as a high school exchange student and returned when he was 19 for an intensive English language program at the University of Northern Iowa. The Midwest felt like home. “I loved Iowa’s people, particularly in the rural areas that reminded me a lot of Argentina,” he recalls.
Lerda initially planned to stay just three months, but he fell in love with an Iowan, who would become his wife. Driven by a desire to give back to America, he ran for student government, becoming the first international student body president at the university.
In the years that followed, Lerda worked in public service, earned a law degree, and represented the Iowa Corn Growers Association before joining JFON-NE in 2011. The organization had just two paralegals. Today, it has 22 full-time employees. “We went from providing services to 250 to 300 cases a year to providing services in more than 2,700 cases last year,” he says. “We are adamant about the moral responsibility to deliver the highest quality legal services to low-income immigrants pro bono.”
Lerda, who is now a U.S. citizen, also sees how that moral responsibility translates into long-term civic and economic benefits in his new country. “The vibrancy of our rural towns that have been revitalized comes in great part from the contributions made by Latino and immigrant communities,” he says. Case in point: One of the daughters of the domestic violence victim his organization helped is now preparing for college. “Now they have the opportunity to dream,” he says.