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A View from Nebraska

Demographic Trends and Data


In 1990, immigrants made up 2% of Nebraska’s total population. That percentage grew to 4% in 2000 and to 6% in 2010.

The figures below compare the immigrant population in Nebraska to that of other states in the Midwest, as well as the growth of that population between 1990 and 2010.

The foreign-born population in Nebraska grew by 298% between 1990 and 2010, the largest percentage increase in the region.


Since 2000, Nebraska has welcomed 6,153 refugees from 39 countries. The majority came from Burma (1,952), Sudan (1,118), Iraq (431), the former Yugoslavia (381), and Somalia (361). In addition, around 40 asylees settle in the state each year. As of FY 2010, refugees constituted roughly 5.0% of the state’s total foreign born population.

While Nebraska does not resettle a particularly large number of refugees (it currently ranks 9th out of all Midwestern states), the state’s low population density means that refugee communities are far more visible and tend to make up a larger proportion of the total population. For instance, Nebraska has the highest concentration of Sudanese refugees of any state in the country.


The primary resettlement agencies operating in Nebraska are Heartland Refugee Resettlement, Inc. (Omaha and Lincoln), Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska (Omaha and Lincoln), and Catholic Social Services (Hastings). The overwhelming majority of refugees arriving in Nebraska (generally between 70% and 90%) settle in Omaha and, often to a much greater extent, Lincoln. For instance, in 2000, 91% of all refugees arriving in the state went to Lincoln while only 9% settled in Omaha, despite it being the larger city. A smaller number of refugees are also resettling in the city of Bellevue. Some resettlement agencies report that Nebraska is experiencing significant amounts of secondary migration as refugee families arrive from other states.


The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the proportion of undocumented immigrants, as a share of the total population of Nebraska, increased 700% between 1990 and 2010, though the proportion of undocumented persons remains very small. It is important to emphasize that these numbers are only broad estimates. The actual numbers may be quite different.

The figure below compares the estimated percent of the total population that is undocumented in Nebraska among the 12 Midwestern states and the United States.


Six and one-half percent of Omaha’s suburban population was foreign-born in 2010, compared with 8 percent of urban and 2 percent of rural residents. Between 2000 and 2010 the population increased most dramatically in rural areas.

An examination of data on all of the immigrants living in metropolitan areas in Nebraska demonstrates that 51% live in Omaha. The Lincoln metropolitan area saw its share of Foreign-born residents decrease slightly between 2000 and 2010.



In Nebraska, and across the region, in 2010 a larger percentage of immigrants (60%) than US-born residents (53%) were currently married. The total household size of the foreign-born was also larger—3.4 individuals, compared with 2.4 for the native-born. Household members can be either relatives, or unrelated individuals.

Immigration History

European immigrants began arriving in Nebraska after the passage of the 1862 Homestead Act and its promise of cheap farmland. The expansion of the railroad system running through Nebraska during the middle of the 19th century attracted many immigrants to the state as well, due in part to the increase in demand for laborers to lay the tracks, and also because enterprising foreign-born farmers recognized the railroads potential for rapid crop transport to East Coast markets. The railroad companies advertised heavily among the immigrant communities on the East Coast, seeking workers. Many of these immigrants came to Nebraska to work on the railroad, and stayed after the tracks were laid to farm the cheap land. By 1900, half of all farmers in the state were foreign-born.

This symbiotic relationship between agriculture and the railroads shaped the geography of Nebraska, as well as the makeup of the state’s early immigrant communities. The railroad companies owned 17 percent of land in the state at the time, and the genesis of new rural communities closely tracked the progress of the railroad system. Railroad towns, heavily populated with foreign-born railway workers and farmers, sprang up as each successive stretch of track was laid. The biggest immigrant group in the state throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries was German, with most German immigrants settling in northeastern Nebraska. But there was also a substantial Swedish population in Polk and Saunders counties, and eventually the state became home to the largest Swedish, Danish, and Czech populations of any Midwestern state.

The second half of the 20th century brought a sizable number of Hispanic immigrants to Nebraska. Many of these immigrants took jobs in meatpacking and construction. Hispanics are now the largest immigrant group in the state, and constitute a solid majority of all foreign-born residents. Nevertheless, Nebraska’s foreign-born population remains low relative to other states in the Midwest.


In its simplest form ‘immigrant assimilation’ refers to a process whereby, over time, immigrants become indistinguishable from native-born residents. This process is neither one-way, nor linear, and not all changes lead to improved status. It also ignores the myriad ways in which native-born residents are influenced by immigrants.

To the general public two of the most visible markers of assimilation are language proficiency and socio-economic status. Clusters of poor, ethnically or racially distinct foreign-born residents with low levels of schooling and English proficiency perpetuate perceptions of difference and foster the impression that contemporary immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as white Europeans who came to the US at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, such perceptions are rarely accompanied by analyses of barriers to assimilation, or support for programs that might accelerate the integration of new immigrants.

Differences in such measures as English language ability, home ownership and income depend upon much more than whether an individual was born outside or inside of the US. There are important differences in the ease of assimilation that depend upon the age and skill level that an immigrant has when he or she enters the country, and the kinds of opportunities that are available after arrival. It is important to keep these factors in mind when comparing the experiences of immigrants in various states or regions of the US.


The general public often perceives immigrants to be concentrated in low-level jobs, but in actuality immigrant workers are fairly well dispersed across the skills spectrum; the most rapid growth in the employment of immigrants since 2000 has been in middle-skilled jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree. However the greatest increases in projected numbers of new jobs are in fields that require low-levels of education and training. Between 1990 and 2006 the share of immigrant workers in each of the four employment sectors increased dramatically and outpaced the increase in native-born workers’ jobs in rate of increase, but not in absolute numbers, with the exception of construction.

Median earnings for the foreign-born and native-born in Nebraska are shown below for 2010, and then median earnings of the foreign-born are further stratified by period of entry. It can be noted that the foreign-born who arrived in the earlier waves before 1990, or between 1990 and 2000, have higher median earnings than those who have arrived more recently.


In 2006 46% of foreign-born workers earned “family-sustaining wages,” compared to 59% of native-born workers. The percentages of foreign-born and native-born living below 100% of the Poverty Level in Nebraska are shown below for 2010.

One indication of assimilation over time is that the poverty rate for naturalized citizens was considerably lower than that for non-citizens, and even lower than that for native-born citizens. Because immigrants must be legal permanent residents for at least five years before naturalizing, the income difference may indicate that incomes are improving over time. It could also be the result of a “self selection” effect, whereby those individuals who elect to become citizens, and who learn enough English and civics to pass the citizenship test are also those who will achieve some economic success. It is likely that both factors are at work.

Immigrants who were born in Asia and Europe had considerably higher mean incomes than those born in Latin America (not shown).

Some kinds of demographic and socio-economic data are only available for racial/ethnic groups, rather than for immigrants. In the absence of data on such measures as home or business ownership among immigrant groups, it may be of interest to compare these measures for Hispanics or Asians with the important caveat that the comparisons include a majority of native-born residents. Business ownership is most often reported for different racial/ethnic groups, rather than for immigrants and non-immigrants. In 2010 Asians constituted 1.8% of the population in Nebraska, and owned a similar percentage of businesses in the state (1.4%). In contrast, the proportion of Hispanic-owned businesses was much less than their share of the population.

Although the percentages of Nebraska businesses owned by US- or foreign-born Asians and Hispanics are small, they account for 2,277 and 3,063 firms respectively. The positive impact of immigrant integration into the business sector in Nebraska is additionally indicated by 2007 combined sales and receipts of $1.3 billion, and combined employment of 8,800.


Asians and Hispanics/Latinos have rates of home ownership that are similar to those in other Midwest states. In the 2007 American Community Survey, the percentage of all Hispanics (foreign-born and native-born) who were homeowners was 35%. Of the entire Asian population in Nebraska, 58% were homeowners.


Immigrants in Nebraska, and throughout the Midwest, had both higher and lower levels of education than native-born residents in 2010. That is, they were both much more likely to have less than a high school diploma, and slightly more likely to have a graduate or professional degree. Educational attainment is a very important dimension of integration, as it is strongly related to other dimensions of integration such as income and English language proficiency. Nationally and in the Midwest, the children of immigrants tend to achieve higher levels of education than their parents, although Caucasian and Asian youth go further in school than do Hispanics (or African Americans, few of whom are foreign-born).

In Nebraska, graduation rates were lower for Hispanic students (foreign-born and native-born combined) than for their Caucasian and Asian peers.

Similarly, the Hispanic dropout rate in Nebraska in the 2007-2008 school year (4.8%) was over two times that of White students (1.8%) and Asian students (1.4%).

State testing data has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the connection between measures of student performance and federal funding levels. However, if the data can be believed, state tests in Nebraska leave some room for optimism regarding improved student performance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, grade 8 students from all racial and ethnic groups demonstrated improved scores on state assessments of math and reading between 2004-05 and 2009-10, with an all-student increase of 13% in math and 15% in reading. The scores for Hispanic students went up at higher rates than these state-wide averages.


Despite the challenges facing Hispanic students, national data show that second generation immigrants exceed their parents’ education levels.

Higher educational attainment among members of the second-generation is not specific to Mexicans; it is consistent across all immigrant groups.


English Proficiency is collected by self-report in the Census and American Community Survey. Respondents can respond that they do not speak English, speak English only, or speak another language in addition to English. This final group is then divided further as they indicate how well they speak English as either “Very well,” “Well,” or “Not well.” The chart below compares English Proficiency in the foreign-born population, showing the percent of the foreign-born that identified themselves as speaking English “Well,” “Very Well,” or as their native/only language. There was a slight increase in the percentage of those speaking English well or better from 2000 to 2010 that is not significant; small levels of change may be due to sampling error; larger differences are likely be due to a combination of English language learning by foreign-born over time and higher English proficiency levels of more recent immigrants.

In 2010 66% of immigrants spoke English well, very well or fluently. This was the lowest of the spectrum of states in the Midwest, perhaps because of differences in the makeup of the foreign-born population or recency of arrival. Another factor in English ability may be the availability of programs for limited proficiency adults.

Levels of English language learning vary significantly within and between immigrant groups. More important than country of origin is the age at which an individual entered the US, and his or her level of education and literacy in their native language. In Nebraska, 10% of the total state population spoke a language other than English at home in 2010, and 4% of the total population spoke English less than very well. Two percent of households were linguistically isolated (meaning that all members of the household age 14 and over were limited English proficient).

The percentage of foreign-born residents who are limited English proficient (LEP) has remained relatively high over the years.


As would be expected, the children of immigrants in speak English at a much higher average rate than the total population of foreign-born in the state.

Similarly, immigrants who have naturalized as U.S. citizens (and who are likely to have been in the country longer) have lower rates of LEP than noncitizens.

Linguistic integration, like other measures of integration, varies among different immigrant groups. Among the foreign-born ages 5 and older in Nebraska in 2009, those who spoke Spanish at home had the highest percent LEP, compared to speakers of Asian and Pacific, Indo-European, or other languages at home.


Though Hispanics in Nebraska and across the Midwest are more likely to be LEP than other groups, national data show that, in comparison to predominantly white, European immigrants from the early 20th Century, contemporary Hispanic and Latino immigrants learn English at faster rates within the first five years of arrival in the United States. The same is true for the population of immigrants who arrived in the country between 1980 and 2000.


A clear measure of integration is the rate at which immigrants become naturalized citizens of the United States. Naturalization not only means becoming an American citizen, but generally also requires a modest demonstration of knowledge of American civics, history basic English language skills. In Nebraska, 41% of all immigrants were naturalized citizens in 2010. Of immigrants in Nebraska who entered the United States before 1980, 72% were citizens in 2009, lower than the national average (79%).

Immigrants who have been in the country the longest are most likely to naturalize.

The figure below compares the percent of naturalized citizens in Nebraska and in the other eleven Midwest states, both in 2000 and in 2010.


The figure below compares the percent of naturalized citizens in Nebraska and in the other eleven Midwest states, both in 2000 and in 2010.

In the 2008 elections, 3% of registered voters in Nebraska were naturalized citizens or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. This proportion of the voting population will likely rise as the foreign-born voting-eligible population increased by 25% from 2000-2006, and that 85% of children with immigrant parents in Nebraska were U.S. citizens in 2009.

As of 2012, however, representation of ethnic minorities among elected officials in Nebraska remains disproportionately low relative to their share of the population; while 9.2% of the total population is Hispanic and 2% are Asian, no state legislators are Asian or Hispanic.


Tomas Jiminez explained the value of intermarriage as an indication of integration by saying, “When individuals marry each other without regard to ethno-racial or national origin, it indicates that the social boundaries between groups are highly permeable.” Jiminez also highlighted the interconnection of various integration measures by pointing out that intermarriage rates are determined, in part, by English language acquisition and socioeconomic status, which shape opportunities to interact with those of different ethnic or national origins.

Data on inter-marriages between immigrants and native-born residents is not available, but between 2008 and 2010, 14% of all marriages in Nebraska were interracial or interethnic. While slightly lower than the national average of 15%, this figure is higher than the Midwest average of 11%.



Nebraska has passed 18 bills concerning immigration issues since 2008. In 2006, Nebraska began providing in-state tuition benefits for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors, but more recently, state policy has been restrictive toward immigration.


2011 – Motor Vehicle Operator and Identification Card (NE L 215). This bill establishes that applicants for a motor vehicle operator’s license will be subject to a criminal history records check, including a check of immigration status. Only those with documented lawful presence are eligible to receive an operator’s licenses or state-issued ID card.

2011 – Uniform Credentialing (NE L 225). State issued credentials are provided only to citizens and lawfully present aliens.

2011 – (NE L 465). This bill repeals eligibility for state-funded public benefits for legal immigrants that do not qualify for assistance under federal guidelines. Immigrants are subject to a five-year bar from federal programs including TANF, SNAP, and Medicaid.

2011 – Employment Security Law Benefit Eligibility (NE L 509). This bill declares aliens who lack legal authorization to work ineligible to receive unemployment benefits.

2009 – Lawful Presence (NE L 403). This bill restricts eligibility for public benefits to those whose lawful presence has been verified. It also requires work authorization status to be verified using the federal immigration verification system (E-Verify) for public employment and employment under public contracts. Unlawfully present immigrants are not eligible for state retirement benefits.


According to the National Council of La Raza, an Arizona-style law enforcement bill, similar to SB 1070, was introduced in Nebraska in the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, but was rejected or refused consideration.

Labor Force Data

The proportion of immigrants in the US labor force almost doubled between 1990 and 2010—from 9 to 16 percent, at a time when the percentage of native-born workers decreased from 91% to 84%. Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it grew at a rate that was seven times faster rate than that for the native-born workforce. Over 60% of immigrant workers in Nebraska come from Latin America, and a 25% are from Asia.

Immigrant workers in the state make up a smaller percentage of the labor force than in the US as a whole.


The top industries employing immigrants and US-born workers in Nebraska in the state are similar, although foreign-born workers are more likely to work in production, transportation and material moving, and are not heavily employed in sales.

Nebraska had a higher state-wide unemployment rate in January of 2011 than just one other state in the Midwest; immigrants in the construction industry (not shown) were particularly hard-hit.

In spite of the recession, demand for immigrant workers continued, and the percentage of foreign-born civilian workers increased by 67% in Nebraska and by 40% nationally from 2000-2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increased need for workers in a variety of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, several of which have a shortage of US-born workers.


Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it is growing at a much faster rate than the native-born workforce.

The foreign-born workforce in the Nebraska grew while the native-born labor force decreased over the period from 1990 to 2010.


Nebraska has a small, but rapidly growing foreign-born population.  Between 1990 and 2010 it was one of four states in the Midwest that had an increase of over 200%.  The increases in the foreign-born population and work force are key to the future prosperity of Nebraska and the Midwest region.

The most dramatic demographic shift in the United States today is the aging of the population—a development that increases the tax burden on young workers who make payroll contributions to cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Aging has been accelerated by the out-migration of young native-born workers, a phenomenon that Rogerson and Kim describe as “the emptying of the Bread Basket of its breadwinners.” A steady influx of immigrant workers is essential to maintaining a young and productive work force

Who's Involved


  • David Zaritzky Brown – Managing Partner, Brown Immigration Law LLC
  • The Lande Group
  • Nebraska Coalition for Immigration Reform
  • Lazaro Arturo Spindola – Executive Director, Latino American Commission