LINCOLN — Thousands of immigrants brought to Nebraska and Iowa illegally as children may lose their ability to work and drive if Donald Trump follows through on a pledge to end a key immigration policy of the Obama administration.
Once he takes office in January, the Republican president-elect has indicated he will execute his promised crackdown on illegal immigration. Trump’s transition website says he will “cancel unconstitutional executive orders” — which his advisers have said include President Barack Obama’s 2012 program that suspended deportation for about 750,000 people who arrived here illegally as children.
About 3,300 immigrants in Nebraska and another 2,700 in Iowa have qualified for temporary work permits and Social Security numbers under the federal program, which is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
The likelihood of the program’s demise has stoked anxiety and fear among immigrants who were raised and educated in the U.S. and have no connections to their native lands, said Kristin Fearnow, an Omaha immigration attorney. They had to step out of the shadows and submit detailed government applications to qualify for the federal program.
“There’s a lot of trepidation,” she said. “It feels like a collective holding of our breath, hoping that some of the things we heard during the election are rhetoric.”
The same goes for broader categories of immigrants who have come to the United States without authorization. Most hold jobs, and some even own businesses that employ U.S. citizens, Fearnow said.
Trump’s website also re-emphasized his other immigration-related proposals, which include building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, prohibiting visas for people from certain high-risk nations and withholding funds from sanctuary cities.
The president-elect listed immigration as one of his top three priorities the day after the election.
“We’re looking very strongly at immigration,” Trump told reporters Wednesday after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “We’re going to look at the borders, very importantly, we’re looking very strongly at health care and we’re looking at jobs — big league jobs.”
Also, Trump’s transition team has been joined by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who is the author of a controversial immigration housing ordinance in Fremont, Nebraska, and in municipalities in Alabama and Arizona.
Kobach told a Kansas television station that there will be “a lot of changes” coming on the immigration front.
The DACA program was heavily debated in Nebraska, the final state to agree to issue driver’s licenses to such immigrants. In 2015 lawmakers overwhelmingly supported a bill that authorized driving privileges for DACA recipients.
Immigration hard-liners said it was wrong to grant a state benefit to illegal immigrants, but business, industry and agricultural groups got behind the bill as a way to help address the state’s shortage of qualified workers.
This year Nebraska lawmakers voted to grant professional licenses to the same category of immigrants. In both cases, they overrode the vetoes of Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Now it appears Trump, with his own executive action, could undo the work of state lawmakers.
A provision of the driver’s license bill says that if the “approved lawful status is terminated,” the immigrants must return their operator’s licenses to the Department of Motor Vehicles. State professional licenses held by the immigrants expire when their federal work permits end.
The DMV will take no action unless changes are implemented at the federal level, a spokesman for Ricketts said.
State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, who prioritized the driver’s license bill, said he hopes Trump will ultimately leave the DACA program intact. But he also said he wants to see the federal government finally accomplish immigration reform.
State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte voted against both measures because, as he put it, they violated the rule of law. But Groene said he would tell Trump and members of Congress to focus first on securing the borders and then address “sanctuary” programs such as DACA.
He also indicated he would not support sending people back to countries that were completely unfamiliar to them.
“I really think the hard-line immigration people would soften if the holes were plugged,” he said. “I really do. I’m one of them.”
Doug Kagan, president of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, said he fully supports elimination of DACA and the deportation of DACA recipients. But he would advocate for an accelerated application process that would allow DACA immigrants to return if they had clean criminal histories.
He, too, would like to see the president-elect focus on other immigration priorities.
“I think the best thing that Trump came up with is to get federal law enforcement to remove over 2 million criminal illegal aliens in this country,” Kagan said. “We’re very much in favor of that.”
Emiliano Lerda, director of Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, said he and other immigration advocates are waiting for more information. Whatever actions the president-elect takes will be heavily scrutinized and could trigger court battles.
The uncertainly is unnerving, he admitted, but it’s also bringing people together.
“I’ve heard many people expressing their love and support for each other,” she said. “Expressing support for immigrants in the community in general.”
This report includes material from Bloomberg News.