Growing up in Lexington, Nebraska, in the 1990s, Luis Sotelo witnessed a cultural transition when Latin American workers arrived to fill a demand for labor in a new meatpacking plant. “And today we are seeing a new wave of immigrants in Lexington,” says Sotelo, who serves as chief diversity officer for Doane University. “They’re families from Somalia, Kenya, and other African countries. Everyone is relearning how to live with each other.”
Sotelo has dedicated his career to helping young people — especially immigrants — become educated and productive citizens. Before accepting the job at Doane, he worked as a teacher, a high school speech coach, and a bilingual college planning specialist, as well as serving on the town library’s board of trustees. Now, at the university, his work is instrumental in helping young newcomers become economically and civically engaged.
“I’m optimistic that, just as we found out before, we all want many of the same things and have many of the same goals,” he says. “Immigrants bring certain assets with them.”
Every single hour, day, week, and year that we delay modernizing our immigration policy, we are essentially saying that we are OK with not fulfilling the potential of our great nation.
Sotelo is from a rural town in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. His father did seasonal agricultural work in Michigan, Florida, and California and was often away, following the apple, orange, and alfalfa harvests. When Sotelo was 5, his family moved to Lexington, where Sotelo’s father got a job at the meatpacking plant. For the first time, the family could stay together year-round. And thanks to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to some agricultural workers, they were able to obtain U.S. citizenship. No such path to citizenship exists for immigrants today.
Modernizing current U.S. immigration policy is imperative “if we want to tap the full potential of every individual currently in the United States,” Sotelo says now. “Every single hour, day, week, and year that we delay modernizing our immigration policy, we are essentially saying that we are OK with not fulfilling the potential of our great nation.”
In Nebraska’s Third Congressional District, which hugs the eastern part of the state and includes Doane University’s four campuses, 22 percent of the immigrant residents are under the age of 24. Help this population succeed, as Sotelo works to do, and the region benefits. Already immigrants in the district, who comprise 5 percent of the population and are seven times more likely than U.S.-born residents to have less than a high school education, contribute $136.7 million in annual taxes and hold $426 million in annual spending power.
“I think our country is great because of all the people we have here from diverse backgrounds,” says Sotelo.