Not in Our Town: Immigration breathes new life, tension into city


January 26th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Grand Island is one of the most culturally diverse cities in Nebraska. While the city opens its doors to more immigrants every day, the influx of different cultures and attitudes has sometimes led to conflict within the community. In part one of the NET News series “Not in our Town,” reporter Ben Bohall examines the demographics of the small city and the conflicts that have occurred as a result.

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Signs of Grand Island's multicultural makeup are scattered throughout the Nebraska city. (Photo illustration by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Grand Island’s population of more than 48,000 has been one of the most diverse in the state of Nebraska. According to the 2010 Census, 27 percent of the city’s population was made up of individuals declaring themselves as being of Hispanic, or Latino descent. Sixty-nine percent considered themselves “white”; with several other ethnicities, including American Indians or African Americans, making up the rest. All-in-all, the numbers represent a multicultural city that’s ever-changing.

According to Miguel Ceballos , Assistant Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, there’s been a big reason for that. “In general, what we’re seeing today is a recent slew of immigrants to Nebraska,” Ceballos said.

Ceballos has focused his research in recent years on immigration- specifically Hispanics – into towns and cities across Nebraska, including Grand Island.

“A large proportion have gone to the more rural areas of Nebraska,” he said. “Areas where you have the development of the meat-packing shed, especially such as the Lexington area, some of the central areas around Grand Island. A significant flow has been going to these rural counties that have had almost no experience with Latino immigrants.”

And with new cultures have come the spread of different ideas and philosophies. But as Ceballos pointed out, it isn’t always a smooth transition – particularly in how native Nebraskans have sometimes viewed the incoming immigrants.

“We find very similar attitudes compared to the rest of the U.S. Generally, the view is that immigrants bring crime to the community, take away jobs, increase government spending as a result of immigration,” said Ceballos. “But there’s also signs that show there are positive attitudes. A significant amount have shown the view that immigrants improve local economies and that they contribute to new ideas and cultures.”

Autumn Woods Apartments in Grand Island, Neb., was the site of culturally-motivated violence. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Ceballos added that it’s the former attitude that can often strike racial tensions within communities.

That dilemma in Grand Island took center stage in 2009. A Swift & Co. meat packing plant has long been a revolving door for immigrants seeking promises of a steady income, including the Sudanese and Somali populations of Grand Island.

During the month of Ramadan in 2009, Somali Muslim workers had left assembly lines to pray en masse close to five times a day to honor the holiday. Although management at the plant initially tolerated the breaks, Latino and Sudanese coworkers began to complain. According to Grand Island Police Chief Steve Lamken, it was the first step in a series of conflicts, particularly between Sudanese Christian workers and Somali Muslims.

“That created tensions in the plant because they were wanting to stop work and pray,” Lamken recalled. “I think many of the other workers were saying, ‘We aren’t stopping, we work, we have our religious holiday but we still do our jobs.’ So I think that was a lot of the conflict there.”

When the plant tried to tell the Muslim population they had to shorten their breaks and pick up the slack, nearly 500 Muslim workers walked off the job, infuriated. The result was a series of protests that left the plant in constant negotiations with workers during the strikes. After a settlement was met, other workers at the plant, including Latinos and Sudanese Christians, voiced resentment at the plant’s accommodations and in turn walked off the job.

Hostilities soon surfaced between the different groups, ultimately resulting in ethnic clashes that would extend far outside the confines of the Swift & Co. packing plant.

Those tensions came to a head all around the city. At Autumn Woods apartments on the southeast side of town, it wasn’t unusual for Grand Island Police to be called several times a day to respond to clashes between the Sudanese population living on one of the complex, and the Somali on the other. The violence included several stabbings and shootings, including the shooting death of Nyual Majack Angok Mathor in August of 2009. All-in-all it was a situation described Lamken as “chaotic anarchy.”

“There were some significant cultural differences between the Somali population and the Sudanese population in our community. That was pretty volatile there at that time,” Lamken said.

For Lamken and the rest of the Grand Island police department, the Autumn Woods apartments’ incidents, and others like it, demonstrated the need for law enforcement to be on the ground floor of understanding the difference new cultures might bring.

“I think you always see that when you have different cultures, different groups from different countries,” Lamken said. “Although I think no matter where you’re at, be it Grand Island or anywhere, I think that does create friction at times and conflict.”

“We stress trying to treat all people with respect and human dignity, though it doesn’t change much there as far as how we police, but it does change what we have to do because of cultural and language barriers.”

The Swift & Co. packing plant protests and violence surrounding would ultimately grab national attention. It also pointed to an ongoing problem that would have to be addressed.

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