Many immigrants who lose their jobs are not eligible for benefits under Nebraska’s unemployment insurance benefits program, because they are asylum seekers, have temporary protected status or are DACA recipients. CARBALLO/SHUTTERSTOCK

Commentary

TOM VENZOR: Closing the unemployment insurance gap for immigrants

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a basic injustice with Nebraska’s unemployment insurance benefits program.

Currently, certain immigrants with legal “employment authorization” obtained from the federal government cannot receive the state unemployment insurance benefits they have earned. These immigrants work side by side with their fellow Nebraskans. Yet, when the unfortunate happens and they lose employment, they cannot receive unemployment insurance benefits like their co-workers.

So, how did we end up here? And how can we get out of it?

The short version: We got here because of narrowly defined statutory language, and we can resolve it if state senators support LB298, which was introduced by Sen. Mike McDonnell (South Omaha). For the longer version, stick with me.

Under Nebraska’s unemployment insurance program, employers pay a “tax” for each employee. These funds go into an unemployment insurance benefits trust fund. When an eligible employee loses employment, they can draw unemployment insurance benefits from the fund.

Nebraska law currently considers unemployment insurance a “public benefit” and only “qualifying aliens” (a federal immigration law term) are eligible for public benefits. But “qualifying aliens” is a narrow term. It does not account for certain categories of immigrants who have legal employment authorization from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Key categories of immigrants who are not covered in this narrowly defined term are asylum seekers, persons with temporary protected status and DACA recipients. Before jumping to the solution, let’s pause to learn more about who these immigrants are.

Asylum seekers are immigrants who flee to the United States seeking protection from persecution, torture and even death due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Unlike refugees who seek their immigration status while in their home country, asylum seekers apply for status once they are physically present in the United States or at one of our ports of entry. Asylum seekers are often urgently fleeing, with no time or ability to seek refugee status.

Upon arrival, asylum seekers are extensively vetted by the Department of Homeland Security. They most often come from China, Venezuela and El Salvador. They also come from countries like Syria, which is torn by civil war and, as one source observes, is a “breeding ground for the persecution of Christians.”

Persons with temporary protected status are immigrants from certain foreign countries whose conditions are such that an immigrant temporarily cannot return safely. The types of conditions include events like ongoing armed conflict and environmental disaster.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (more commonly known as DACA) recipients are youth and young adults who have “unlawful presence” in the United States, but the federal government has “deferred” any prosecutorial actions (such as deportation). DACA recipients have been brought to the United States as children, often at a very young age. For many DACA recipients, the only home they’ve ever known is the United States.

DACA recipients have attended our public and parochial schools, played on our sports teams, participated in our churches, gone to our colleges and universities, and much more. Yet, they cannot obtain legal status because, for years, Congress has failed to pass bipartisan legislation to provide a path for citizenship. Meanwhile, DACA recipients have been given “employment authorization” which allows them to legally work in places like our small businesses, hospitals, banks, schools and nonprofits.

So, what can we do?

We can support LB298. This bill addresses the unemployment insurance benefits gap. It proposes a path forward and ensures immigrants who lawfully work in Nebraska have access to the very same earned benefits their co-workers have.

LB298 has received a Business and Labor Committee hearing. This means it is time for Catholic Nebraska to rise up on behalf of our TPS immigrants, asylum seekers and DACA recipients. I urge you to charitably and winsomely contact members of the Business and Labor Committee and ask them to advance LB298. The members are Chairman Ben Hansen (bhansen@leg.ne.gov), Vice-Chairwoman Carol Blood (cblood@leg.ne.gov), Senators Steve Halloran (shalloran@leg.ne.gov), Tim Gragert (tgragert@leg.ne.gov), Megan Hunt (mhunt@leg.ne.gov), Steve Lathrop (slathrop@leg.ne.gov) and Matt Hansen (mhansen@leg.ne.gov).

Your advocacy for this important legislation will provide justice for immigrants. God bless your efforts!

Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at tvenzor@necatholic.org.