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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 who have legally obtained “employment authorization” from the federal government cannot receive the state unemployment insurance benefits they have earned.

These immigrants work side-by-side with countless of their fellow Nebraskans. Yet, when the unfortunate happens and they lose employment, their co-workers are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits while these immigrants are left without their earned benefits.

So, how did we get into this situation? And how can we get out of it?

For those who want the short version: we got here because of statutory language that is too narrowly defined, and we can get out of it by our state senators supporting LB298. For those who want to stick with me for 600 more words, let’s do some learning.

Nebraska’s unemployment insurance program requires employers to pay a “tax” on each employee. This tax goes into the state’s unemployment insurance benefits trust fund. When an employee loses employment, they can draw unemployment insurance benefits if certain conditions are met.

Currently, Nebraska law 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 which does not account for certain categories of immigrants who have legally received employment authorization from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

The 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 too quickly into 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 they are still 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 to the U.S., asylum seekers are extensively vetted by the Department of Homeland Security. The leading countries from which the U.S. receives asylees are China, Venezuela, and El Salvador. But they also come from other countries such as Syria, which is torn by civil war and, as one source observes, is “breeding ground for the persecution of Christians.”

Persons with temporary protected status are immigrants from certain foreign countries whose conditions are such that an immigration temporarily cannot return safely. The types of conditions a country must experience are events like ongoing armed conflict and environmental disaster (e.g., hurricane or earthquake).

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (more commonly known as DACA) recipients refers to 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 U.S.

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 any legal status because, for years, Congress has been unable to pass bipartisan legislation to remedy the DACA problem. In the absence of any legislative solution, DACA recipients have been given “employment authorization” which allows them to legally work in places like our small businesses, hospitals, banks, schools, and non-profits.

So, finally, what can we do?

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

LB298 recently 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. At this time, I urge you to charitably and winsomely contact members of 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).

As this bill advances in the legislative process, the Nebraska Catholic Conference will continue to call on your advocacy for this important legislation that provides justice for immigrants. God bless!

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