TOM VENZOR: Justice for immigrants

The days are waning for the Nebraska Legislature. Legislators, lobbyists and citizen advocates alike eagerly await the summer months, which lie on the other side of adjournment.

In the meantime, these interested parties are doing all they can to advance or stomp out legislative bills. For the Nebraska Catholic Conference, these waning days have our attention focused on LB298. This legislation would close the unemployment insurance benefits gap for work-authorized immigrants. Your action is needed now: Contact your state senator and ask them to advance LB298.

However, you might be asking: Why is LB298 good policy? And why should I advocate for it?

LB298 was introduced by Sen. Mike McDonnell of South Omaha. He brought this legislation after learning about the basic inequity that occurs in our state’s unemployment insurance benefits program, an inequity affecting both employers and employees.

Currently, under Nebraska law, employers pay an unemployment insurance tax for each of their employees. That tax funds the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund. This trust fund is what provides financial assistance to employees who end up in the unfortunate circumstance of unemployment.

However, the state’s unemployment insurance benefits program currently does not provide assistance to work-authorized immigrants who would otherwise qualify for the state’s social safety net for the temporarily unemployed.

On the one hand, this amounts to defrauding employers because they are under the impression that they are paying into the system for all of their employees. Yet when their legally work-authorized immigrant employees end up unemployed, those employees are not covered by the current unemployment insurance benefits system. Employers, then, are being unnecessarily and unjustly taxed for an assistance program that isn’t doing its job of helping those in need.

On the other hand, this amounts to an injustice for work-authorized immigrants. These immigrants who have legal authorization from the federal government to work in Nebraska, and work alongside of countless other Nebraskans, are prohibited from accessing a public benefit they earned through their hard work. While no reasonable person hopes to be unemployed, the whole point of unemployment insurance benefits is to ensure that those who lose their job and qualify for unemployment assistance can get temporary help when they need it most. This keeps people on their feet, paying for basic needs, so they can pursue new employment and regain the stability that comes with dignified work.

LB298 proposes a straightforward and simple remedy to this problem: It makes a few adjustments in state law that makes work-authorized immigrants eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

When we look to our own faith tradition, we can see why a policy like this advances the common good. Scripture is replete with examples of how Christians can “welcome the stranger” as Christ puts it in Matthew 25.

Throughout the Old Testament we repeatedly witness the Jewish people being exiled from the Promised Land. It was through this forced migration that they came to know God’s love more deeply. In experiencing that love, they had deeper sympathy and greater support for those who came to Israel as immigrants from a distant land.

We can also look at the life of Christ himself. As an infant, he immediately became an immigrant. Forced by King Herod’s murderous slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the Holy Family, under the custody of St. Joseph, fled to Egypt to escape the murder of the infant Christ.

LB298 simply recognizes that there are immigrants among us – who work alongside us in our small businesses, schools and factories – and we are called to make sure their basic needs are met in the same way ours are being met. If we were to become unemployed, we could qualify for the state’s unemployment insurance benefits program and get the stability of temporary public assistance while we pursue new employment. This basic safety net should also be extended to the legally work-authorized immigrants in our midst.

So, as I noted before, please take action. Contact your state senator. Urge them to support LB298 and advance it to Gov. Ricketts so that he can sign it into law.

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