March 1, 2011 | The Republic | Original Article

Census: Neb. Latino population grows 77 percent over decade; state's population up 6.7 percent

OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska's population became more diverse over the past decade, particularly among Latinos whose numbers surged more than 77 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

What the local population count doesn't reveal is how many of the state's 167,405 Hispanics, now accounting for more than 9 percent of Nebraska's population, are illegal immigrants. The Legislature plans to hold a hearing Wednesday on a bill that would require police officers, when enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally.

Although the Latino population represented the biggest surge from 2000 to 2010, other minority groups also became larger, accounting for an overall growth rate of 6.7 percent for the state. The black population grew 20 percent to 80,959, and the Asian population grew 47 percent to 31,919.

The number of white residents grew nearly 3 percent to 1,572,838 in 2010 from 1,533,261 in 2000. Their percentage of the population declined from 90 percent to 86 percent.

As Nebraska has become more diverse in recent years, conflict over illegal immigration has emerged in several parts of the state.

State lawmakers are considering several bills related to illegal immigration this year, and last year voters in the city of Fremont approved a measure that prohibits hiring or renting to illegal immigrants.

Lourdes Gouveia, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Latino/Latin American Studies Department, says many immigrants in Nebraska feel ignored or neglected by the state's policymakers. The state's overall climate has become increasingly hostile toward immigrants, Gouveia said.

Gouveia said the state should be finding ways to help immigrants settle in Nebraska because of the potential long-term benefits to the state's economy.

"Immigrants and the children of immigrants continue to be the motor of economic development in this state," Gouveia said

The police questioning measure being considered Wednesday also would require non-U.S. citizens to carry documents showing their legal status. Failure to do so would be a misdemeanor. The measure criminalizes harboring, hiding or transporting an illegal immigrant. Violation of that would be a misdemeanor.

The bill from Fremont Sen. Charlie Janssen is similar to a controversial Arizona law. Janssen said his proposal deals with the legal status of immigrants, not their race, so the Census numbers aren't likely to affect it.

"I think if people are immigrating here legally, that's great," Janssen said. "This isn't about the increasing Latino population in Nebraska."

Critics say the Arizona law encourages racial profiling. A federal judge blocked sections of the law in July, including provisions calling for police to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws and requiring immigrants to prove they are in the United States legally.

Janssen's measure differs from the Arizona law in that it does not allow law enforcement to make warrantless arrests of suspected illegal immigrants.

The Census numbers also show that urban areas of the state grew at a faster pace than rural areas, so more of Nebraska's population is now on the eastern end of the state.

Only 24 of Nebraska's 93 counties gained population between 2000 and 2010 while the rest of the counties lost population. Most of the counties that gained population are in eastern Nebraska near the state's two largest cities of Omaha and Lincoln.

The eastward population shift is partly why state lawmakers must redraw the lines for the state's three congressional districts and 49 state legislative districts this year. But Nebraska won't lose any of its three U.S. House seats.

Douglas County's population grew nearly 12 percent to remain the largest, with 517,110 residents. Lancaster County grew 14 percent to remain second at 285,407. Sarpy County, home to the Omaha suburbs of La Vista and Bellevue, grew nearly 30 percent, and is home to 158,840 people.