CRETE, Neb. » Nebraska may appear to be an unlikely setting for swelling anti-immigrant sentiment.
This agricultural hub is far removed from any border. It has long been more preoccupied with bolstering its population than keeping people out. And immigrants, legal and otherwise, have been fixtures for years in the fields and meatpacking plants here, helping this state put meat and vegetables on dinner tables around the country.
But even as the state enjoys relative economic health — unemployment, at 4.6 percent, is the third lowest in the nation — illegal immigration has taken a more central and more divisive place in the politics of communities like this one, visibly transformed by an influx of immigrant newcomers.
That shift in political dialogue has been propelled here by Gov. Dave Heineman — even before it was a national issue. Four years ago, Heineman, a Republican, made his unyielding opposition to illegal immigration a central part of his underdog campaign for governor.
Now, as a popular incumbent heavily favored to win, he recently announced that one of the first acts of his second term would be to press for a law that would make it easier for local police officials to arrest illegal immigrants, which he said would be closely modeled on the controversial law adopted in Arizona that is now being challenged by the Obama administration in court.
"I’m very adamant about this — the federal government has failed to solve the immigration issue," Heineman said in a recent interview in his offices in Lincoln, where the shelves are stocked with college football paraphernalia and the ceilings and walls are adorned with murals celebrating cultures from around the world. "Next January I believe in every state in America there will be an Arizona-type law introduced."
In an election cycle defined by concerns over jobs and mortgages, government spending and debt, the issue of illegal immigration has become a common talking point on the campaign trail.
Candidates running for office in a dozen states have pledged to introduce legislation similar to the Arizona law, according to a count by the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which supports the passage of such laws. But while some of those efforts are given slim chances of passing, such a law is favored by a large majority of Nebraskans.
This summer, Fremont, where Heineman got his start on the City Council, banned businesses from hiring illegal immigrants and landlords from renting to them — a contentious battle that unnerved Hispanic residents across the state.
Residents here say that Crete, a city of 6,000 that is dominated by the meatpacking plant looming over downtown, does not share the divisions that have affected other communities with growing Hispanic populations. Still, there is a palpable unease when talking about immigration.
"We’re just getting too many Hispanic people in town," said Gerry Boller, 78, who works at the counter at New Beginnings Thrift Store on Main Avenue. "It seems like they come in and take over."
At Super Latina, a grocery store next door, Jose Banos, the 36-year-old owner, said that when he moved here from El Salvador 15 years ago, there were no stores that catered to the Hispanic community. Now his is one of many.
But immigrants are worried by the situation in Fremont and the talk of replicating the Arizona laws, and some are talking about leaving.
"Arizona needs the law more than we do because on the border, problems with immigrants come with other problems, like guns and drugs," Banos said. "Here in Nebraska, it’s a whole different story. Immigrants in Nebraska are coming for work."
Just over a decade ago the state’s two most prominent Republican elected officials — Chuck Hagel, then a senator, and Mike Johanns, a governor who is now in the Senate — banded together to successfully pressure federal authorities not to create a program aimed at cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants in the state’s meatpacking plants.
Since that time the number of foreign-born residents — the majority of whom are Hispanic — has increased drastically, more than 40 percent since 2000, according to census estimates. The number of illegal immigrants grew more than 50 percent in that time to 45,000, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
But even if concern about these new arrivals simmered across the state, it did not become a central part of the political dialogue until 2005, when Heineman was elevated from lieutenant governor to the top post after Johanns resigned to be U.S. agriculture secretary.
Heineman’s tenure was expected to be short. The next year, in the Republican primary, he faced the University of Nebraska’s much-beloved football coach turned congressman, Tom Osborne. But Heineman proved a more deft campaigner and lavished attention on the issue of illegal immigration.
"It was the defining issue of his campaign," said David J. Kramer, a lawyer and former state Republican chairman who also ran for office that year. "It was the issue that made the difference between him winning and losing."
As governor, Heineman has emphasized that the state welcomes immigrants, as long as they are legal. He has battled repeatedly, though so far unsuccessfully, to rescind in-state college tuition rates for children who grew up in the state but are in the country illegally.
He implemented a system to perform mandatory checks of those applying for government benefits to ensure that they are not illegal immigrants. And, more recently, he upset some of his anti-abortion supporters by ending a program that provided prenatal care for pregnant women who are in the country illegally.
But while Heineman’s previous efforts addressed circumstances that affected dozens if not hundreds of illegal immigrants, an Arizona-style law would be far more sweeping.
Mike Meister, a Democrat who is running against Heineman, has strongly opposed the proposal, which he said was "clearly unconstitutional" and would waste money by forcing the state to fight an inevitable lawsuit. Meister, a lawyer who is trailing badly in the polls, accused Heineman of using the proposal as a wedge issue.
"He is pandering to the least common denominator," Meister said. "Our fear of difference."