Head of Lincoln Schools Remembers 2006 Grand Island Immigration Raids

Immigration arrests in O'Neill, Nebraska. (Photo by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
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August 9, 2018 - 4:00pm

Federal Immigration raids cracking down on undocumented workers and the people who hire them shocked a number of communities across the state, including O’Neill in north central Nebraska. It brought back memories for Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Joel, who led Grand Island Public Schools in 2006 when a major immigration raid affected more than 100 of his students. NET’s Jack Williams spoke with Dr. Joel about that experience and what school districts across Nebraska can learn from it.  

NET News: It’s been about a dozen years since the immigration raids in and around Grand Island. You were the superintendent of schools there at that time. Was that something that you had ever really thought anything about up until that point, how your students would be affected?

Dr. Steve Joel: No, we really hadn’t. We just assumed that the families and the students that we had back in 2006 were there to stay. They were going to school, they were participating, their parents were engaged, they were hard-working. We just never anticipated that happening, although I do recall politically there were some rumblings about illegal immigration in 2006 as well, but never thought that there would be an orchestrated event that would lead to the separation that it did in 2006.   

Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Joel. (Photo courtesy of Lincoln Public Schools)

NET News: Since then, you’ve kind of made it one of your missions to talk with other districts about having plans in place for when these kinds of things happen. Do more districts pay attention to how immigration operations affect their students now?

Dr. Joel: Right away in 2006, everybody was interested. Anybody that had any immigrant children whatsoever were very interested and we did a number of talks around the community, people came and visited Grand Island. But then over time, like anything else, there are so many issues on the educational table and the community table that you just lose sight of it until there’s an incident. Yesterday’s incident in O’Neill kind of brought back the memories to me when I found out about it and fortunately I was able to have a conversation with the superintendent and I felt like she was on top of it. She was doing the things that we did in Grand Island and I felt good about it. But what that does now is it brings out the best and worst in people which we experienced in 2006 as well.

NET News: What were some of the lessons you were able to share with the superintendent in O’Neill about what you learned in Grand Island 12 years ago?

Dr. Joel: First and foremost, kids. We have to take care of our kids. That’s our obligation and our commitment and our moral imperative. And so we need the community and we need parents and we need students to know we love them, we want them in school and we’re going to do everything we can to protect them and to secure them and to teach them and in fact we just have to really resonate that out in the community. Secondly, we have to understand too, and I learned this firsthand in Grand Island, that this impacted everybody differently. You know, everybody deals with trauma differently, everybody deals with separation differently and as we connected with close to 1,000 students as we were trying to figure out who may have lost one or both parents in that raid at the Swift plant, what we learned is that each child processed that differently so that’s where counselors and social workers and teachers and administrators really come into play and they really did a great job then. And then I think third, to the degree that we can, we need to stay out of the political side of the whole thing because that just infuriates everybody and I think it makes it a little bit easier for us because we really do focus on our kids.            


NET News: Has your crisis plan for events like what we saw in O’Neill this week and what you had to deal with in Grand Island in 2006 evolved at all? Are there new things to think about now?

Dr. Joel: I think really what I saw happening in O’Neill that I was encouraged by and we did this in Grand Island and we lucked into it because there wasn’t anybody that had experienced it, we opened up a school, we called it just kind of a gathering center where we collected all of the children, it was Barr Middle School kind of centrally located, we collected all the children who we felt might not have a parent to go home to, and I have to tell you, when I think about that and I conjure up those memories, it really makes me feel warm, but it also makes me depressed too because these were really hurting kids. And I don’t remember how many we had, several dozen that were down there, and we were working to reunify with a loved one that we could verify and that would be like an aunt or an uncle or an older sibling that was out of school, and that was difficult. And one other memory that I had in Grand Island, and I’m sure O’Neill came through too, is we had an awful lot of teachers that offered homes to kids if we needed them and I don’t know if we needed them because we were able to identify who the loved ones were, but the community resources, go to your United Way, go to your chamber, go to your ministerial alliance, go to any of your support groups, and  bring them, which is what we did in Grand Island and said OK, now that we’ve got these kids hopefully unified with a family loved one, what kind of financial supports can we put in place to help them and we generated a lot of money in a short time.     



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