Dulce Castañeda has always lived in Nebraska, and, over time, she’s witnessed a sea change in the small town of Crete, population 7,000. “There were maybe five or six Latino families when my parents arrived in the late 1990s,” says Castañeda, whose family were among those few Mexicans. “Since then, it’s completely changed.” In the public schools, for instance, Castañeda says the majority of enrollees are now minorities.
Castañeda, a recent graduate of Northwestern University, is now Crete’s first community assistance director, a position designed to help immigrants integrate into their new home. Crete City Administrator Tom Ourada created the position in 2016 after attending the National Immigrant Integration Conference. “He realized that Crete had a lot of the same types of issues as larger cities, just kind of on a smaller scale,” Castañeda says.
On a day-to-day basis, Castañeda helps new community members with everything from understanding the city’s building permit system to translating their mail. “I like to give people information relevant to different services that are available in Crete, and also resources related to schools, banks, financial institutions, and other community and legal services,” she says. “Often, people become loyal office visitors, coming back to me, giving updates. It’s so great to see the progression, the small successes that end up turning into large ones.”
These large successes without a doubt have had a meaningful impact on the financial health of this small community. As the immigrant population has grown, so, too, has the number of small businesses and the city’s net taxable sales. “A lot of them (Hispanic/Latin immigrants) are young people looking for work here with the factories, and the industries we have are conducive to entry-level work,” Crete Police Department Lt. Gary Young told Doaneline, a publication of the university in town. “In that manner, it (immigration) has actually helped the Crete economy.”
Immigrants are revitalizing our economy, contributing to the school system, and enriching the lives of other students.
As a second-generation American, Castañeda knows both the struggle and the payoff of building a life here well. “I saw both sides of the system,” she says. “And that’s what drew me to want to work in this type of job.” Her father works in the meatpacking industry, and his hard work enabled Castañeda to graduate from one of the nation’s top universities.
Immigrants make up just 5 percent of the population in Nebraska’s Third Congressional District, where Crete is located on the state’s eastern border. But they make an outsize contribution to the economy, in part by filling the grueling processing jobs that many factories would struggle to fill otherwise. “Our largest employers are meat-packaging plants,” Castañeda explains. Foreign-born residents in the district are far more likely to be of working age and have less than a high school education than U.S.-born residents are: 72.3 percent are between the ages of 25 and 64, compared with 48 percent of the U.S. born residents; what’s more, 58 percent didn’t graduate high school compared with only 7.9 percent of the U.S.-born residents—a reality that makes entry-level jobs a more attractive option. Immigrants in the district paid $136.7 million in taxes in 2014.
Castañeda’s would like to see immigration reform that embraces those who come to the United States to work, settle down, and create a better future for themselves and their families. “I see the positives of immigration in how immigrants are revitalizing our economy, contributing to the school system, and enriching the lives of other students,” she says.