MeMe Smith has worn several hats over the years, but she’s stuck with Schuyler Public Library director the longest.
Born in South Dakota, her family bounced from Seattle to Louisiana to New Jersey and places in between.
By the time she and her native Nebraskan husband moved to Columbus with their three children, she’d also worked in several positions, particularly in retail. She went to the Nebraska Department of Labor Workforce Development office and learned Schuyler Public Library was hiring.
“As a child, I always said that's what I was going to do was work in a library,” Smith said. “Life kind of took me in a variety of different places before coming here, but I have always loved libraries.”
Sixteen years after landing at the local library, Smith announced she's retiring at the end of September.
“I loved being here,” she said. “I loved working for the people here in Schuyler. A lot of people made me very welcome. And there were enough challenges to keep the job interesting for the whole time I've been here.”
One of those challenges is staying current with rapid changes in technology and determining a library's role in the digital age.
“Needless to say it’s not just books anymore and it's not just physical books,” Smith said. “We have moved to include digital materials.”
The library used to be filled with people using the facility's computers to access the internet, but that's changed, too.
“Now many people come in with their own devices and use our Wi-Fi,” she said.
Another challenge is helping the library adapt to Schuyler’s changing demographics.
“When I came here there was nobody working in the library that spoke any Spanish and I do speak a little,” Smith said. “So that helped develop some rapport with people in the community.”
She also helped expand the library’s collection to accommodate Spanish speakers.
“I worked at developing our Spanish-language materials collections in here,” she said. “And for quite a while there were people from other libraries or other communities that wanted library cards to our library, even though they were outside the community, so they could access our Spanish-language collection.”
Smith focused on making the library an educational resource for the entire community through children's programs and English as a second language and GED classes.
“Literacy is a very important role of ours,” she said.
The library has become a resource for anyone undergoing a major life change, from finding a new job to working through the naturalization process.
“We help patrons with so many things to make their lives better,” Smith said.
Smith has given back to the profession she loves by accepting interns and writing book reviews for Wayne State College.
She's retiring with mixed emotions, but in some ways the decision seems out of her hands. The city of Columbus is purchasing her home for the 12th Avenue viaduct project and her husband already accepted an early retirement incentive.
“Sometimes life leads you in certain directions, whether or not you had planned it to be a certain way or not,” she said. “There were just things that fell into place that made this the time to do that.”
The timing means Smith will not get to enjoy the new Schuyler Public Library building once it’s complete.
“And that's a sad thing for me, but I have to say that I will be pleased for whoever my successor is that they will have some input as to what is going into that new building,” she said.
Schuyler City Council has confirmed the appointment of Jenny White as the new library director.
Smith’s last day will be Sept. 29. After that, she and her husband will move to Omaha to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
“I will miss working with the people here in Schuyler,” she said. “As much as I've enjoyed the challenges here, I'm looking forward to the next stage life brings.”
Sarah Gengler and Maria Muallim, an exchange student from Israel, had their first cultural misunderstanding shortly after Muallim arrived in Schuyler.
“When she got here I took her to see the Platte River and her mom told her she couldn't go to the river because there's crocodiles,” said Gengler, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church who is hosting Muallim. “It just shows the differences in where we live and how we understand other cultures.”
Gengler and Muallim connected through the Aspect Foundation’s exchange program. As a host, Gengler browsed student profiles to decide if they'd be a good match. She chose Muallim.
“She wants to learn Spanish, she’s interested in participating in clubs and it sounds like she's very family-oriented, which I am too,” said Gengler.
The two started communicating in April and Muallim arrived here in late August.
Muallim has been studying English since the third grade and hopes the 10 months she spends in Schuyler will help her become more fluent.
“Sometimes I found it difficult to speak, but I can understand,” she said. “I think it’s a good practice for me because everything around is just in English.”
Before this trip, Muallim’s understanding of American culture came from watching television and movies.
“I was thinking the U.S. was how I saw it in the movies — too many rich people, a lot of cars,” she said. “This experience gives me the opportunity to know the American culture, to meet new friends.”
So far, she likes how the streets are laid out in the U.S. and that most homes are only one or two stories with a lot more grass and trees. In her hometown, many residences are multigenerational with grandparents and their children and grandchildren living in a four- or five-story house.
She’s also noticed American schools are more focused on sports than Israeli schools, and the weather is cooler than she’s used to.
Muallim isn't a big fan of American food.
“Ours is more healthy,” she said. “Here in America almost all of the foods are junk food or unhealthy food.”
Her first few weeks in the U.S. have been pretty busy. She’s attended church, watched the Labor Day parade and a Schuyler Central High School football game, started school and joined the volleyball team. Muallim said she hopes to join as many clubs and go to as many social events as she can while she’s here.
“I came here, one, to build friendships with so many people and to present my culture to them and explain about my history and to learn from them, too. I should learn about their culture and they should learn about mine,” she said.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week that the Trump administration is ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which will no longer accept new applications.
It's now up to Congress to decide what happens to the young immigrants brought here illegally by their parents but granted legal protection through the Obama administration program.
State Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said there are positive and negative aspects to the decision.
“On the bright side, this will make Congress get to work on it,” Schumacher said. “On the bad side, if Congress fails to do anything then we will lose people who did our economy good for a long time.”
Although it's unclear exactly how many people enrolled in the DACA program live in the Columbus area, Schumacher believes forcing them to leave would have an impact.
“We already have an employment issue in this area,” Schumacher said. “So if Congress doesn’t act, that will be exasperated.”
Centro Hispano Executive Director Karina Perez said the political rhetoric was leading to this point for some time.
“It was a very hard day yesterday,” Perez said on Sept. 6, a day after the Trump administration's announcement. “We were actually at the DACA conference in Lincoln and you could feel many hearts break from individuals that are going to be affected.”
Perez said about 3,300 people living in Nebraska will be impacted by the decision to end DACA. These people contribute to the state economy and help rural communities, she said.
“We will continue to work hard to get more done for them,” Perez said. “We are ready here at Centro Hispano to fight for those affected.”
Schuyler Mayor Dave Reinecke said the Trump administration's decision is entirely negative.
“I’m hoping Congress can get this right,” he said. “This was the best thing Obama ever did as far as I’m concerned. I’m hoping Congress agrees with that and gets enough votes in so the president can’t veto it.”
Reinecke said Schuyler, which has a large Latino population, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We don’t want to see people go,” Reinecke said. “Schuyler is doing well and we don’t want the federal government to screw us up. We have always been supportive of the Dreamers. They are the community.”
As DACA recipients wait for Congress to act on the issue, Perez urges the community to act.
“We urge everyone to contact local representatives and get their voices heard,” she said. “Everyone counts in situations like this. We don’t want this to be the end of the journey for them. We hope Columbus will act. We’re not going to give up on that.”
Nebraska's governor, attorney general and other state Republicans stood firmly in favor of President Donald Trump's action to rescind the DACA program.
Meanwhile, state Democrats branded Trump's decision a cruel act that threw thousands of families into disarray.
It was mostly Nebraska Democrats, with one exception in Republican Rep. Don Bacon, who said they would continue to support young immigrants, called Dreamers, who have enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program since 2012.
Of the approximately 3,300 young people living in Nebraska enrolled in the DACA program, the Center for American Progress estimates 2,933 are workers, and that Nebraska could stand to lose $150.2 million annually by removing those workers.
Half again as many Nebraska immigrants are eligible for the program, either now, in the future or if they had the proper education, the center reported. The permits, which allow the young people to work and study without being deported, are renewable after two years. No more applications are being accepted.
Most Nebraska Republicans cited rule of law and separation of powers in their support of Trump's action.
Gov. Pete Ricketts said Trump made the right decision in ending President Barack Obama's "unconstitutional" DACA program.
“The president cannot unilaterally change the rules and grant amnesty to people who come to the United States outside the law,” Ricketts said.
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement that the DACA executive order will be rescinded immediately and the program phased out over the next six months is an important step in protecting the rule of law and the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution.
Peterson said his purpose for joining in a letter with other state attorneys general asking for DACA to be rescinded was to prevent any president from unilaterally using executive orders to create laws.
The duty to address immigration issues properly belongs to the legislative branch, he said, adding bipartisan bills currently before the House and Senate addressing the DACA issue are the proper forums for debate.
U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer said Obama’s unilateral action in 2012 went beyond his constitutional authority.
"Today, President Trump took steps to address this executive overreach by the previous administration," she said. "Congress now has the opportunity to address the legal status of the DACA recipients as part of a broader discussion on border security and legal immigration reform.”
Bacon, who co-sponsored the federal Bridge Act, which extends protections for DACA recipients while Congress works toward an updated immigration policy, reassured DACA recipients he was committed to keeping those who are law-abiding in the country.
“I understand why many people are unsure of what the future holds for them and the fears they are feeling,” Bacon said. “This is the only home many of these children, students, friends, and neighbors have known."
The Trump administration’s announcement recognizes that the Constitution gives lawmaking authority to Congress and laws cannot be changed by executive order, Bacon said.
Congress needs to work on a balanced and compassionate approach that ensures law-abiding DACA recipients are able to stay in the country, he said, but also addresses employer compliance with immigration laws, secures our border and improves our visa program.
“I am eager to work on a solution as soon as possible and I urge my colleagues in the House to make this a priority as well,” he said.
Rep. Adrian Smith, in saying Trump's action was correct, offered no promises for DACA recipients.
“The DACA program violated the separation of powers established by our Constitution and should never have been created through executive action," he said. "This and many other aspects of our broken immigration system, such as border security, have gone too long without being addressed."
Congress and the president must come together to create strong, permanent immigration policies rooted in the rule of law, he said.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, too, said the issue is the responsibility of Congress, adding "necessary humanitarian exceptions must be nested in policies that further robust border security, interior enforcement against illegal activity, and foreign policy initiatives to mitigate the pressure for economic migration.”
In May, 24 Nebraska lawmakers approved a nonbinding resolution (LR26), introduced by Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas, opposing any federal action to rescind protections for DACA youths. Seventeen declined to vote, one senator opposed the resolution and seven were excused and not voting.
In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill (LB623), then voted 34-10 to override Ricketts' veto of it, to allow young immigrants who grew up and were educated in Nebraska to obtain driver's licenses. The next year, lawmakers passed a bill (LB947) that allowed DACA enrollees to obtain professional and commercial licenses.
Vargas said the actions taken by the Trump administration to end the DACA program were shameful and shortsighted.
These DACA youth live, study, work and pay taxes in Nebraska, he argued.
“We can’t turn our backs on them,” Vargas said in a statement that also included three board members of Metropolitan Community College and Omaha Public Schools.
“We must stand by the educational, economic, and community investments we have made in these young people and their families. And we must acknowledge both the talent investment and the economic impact they have on our local economies," the statement read.
Omaha Sen. Sara Howard also urged Nebraska’s congressional delegation to do the right thing and pass legislation during the six-month delay.
"Our country’s greatest strength has been our openness to immigrants and the diversity they bring. I will continue to do all that I can to support these students and to fix our broken immigration system,” Howard said.
The Nebraska Republican Party said Obama, or any U.S. president, has no power to change the laws of the country unilaterally.
"To continue the deferred action program would have undermined our Constitution and the role of the Congress to implement laws. Congress now has the opportunity to properly address our broken immigration system, starting with securing our border,” the party said in a statement.
Several Nebraska Democratic leaders stood in support of the Dreamers.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said the president’s decision was reckless, wrong and cruel.
“America must continue to lead the way on welcoming immigrants to our great state and country. We believe in the hard work of immigrant families,” Kleeb said.
“Trump is a coward for not making the heartless announcement himself and taking questions on what the real motive is behind this reckless move."
Marta Nieves, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party Latino Caucus, said Dreamers bring intelligence, compassion, diversity of thought and perspective, skills, talents and passion to life and to the nation.
“They have been contributing their creativity, and taxes, to the economy and their communities,” she said. “They inspire us to value the best in our nation."
Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, said hundreds of thousands of young immigrants came out of the shadows five years ago and accepted, in good faith, the government’s offer to live, study and work here if they passed a criminal background check.
“Today, the government and President Trump went back on their word, threw the lives and futures of 800,000 Dreamers and their families into disarray, and injected chaos and uncertainty into thousands of workplaces and communities across America," Conrad said.
She urged the Nebraska congressional delegation to follow the lead of Congressman Bacon in standing with Dreamers, and said Attorney General Peterson and Gov. Ricketts should end their "misguided and hurtful attacks" on young immigrants.