Nebraska Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha speaks to DACA supporters rallying at the state Capitol in September 2017. President Trump has signaled immigration raids and mass deportations will begin soon, which Vargas says has many people in his legislative district and elsewhere in Nebraska concerned. 

A sense of apprehension and tension is hanging in the air.

An ominous foreboding and dread.

It's out there on the streets of South Omaha, but it's also in many households in Grand Island, Lexington, Crete, South Sioux City, Schuyler and other communities across Nebraska.

"Next week, ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States," President Donald Trump pronounced on Twitter last month.

And that sudden bolt of lightning signaling impending immigration raids and mass deportation reverberated throughout Latino, or Hispanic, communities across the country with substantial emotional impact in Nebraska.

This is a state in which immigrants and other minorities represent the bulk of its current population growth.

A state in which immigrants are a vital component of the workforce, particularly in some of Nebraska's most vital economic sectors like agriculture and perhaps most visibly in the meatpacking industry.

The sudden bolt of lightning hurled by Trump did not strike as early as he had indicated, but immigration raids were subsequently scheduled in 10 major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston. 

"Many people in my (legislative) district, and elsewhere in Nebraska, feel marginalized and concerned about their safety now," Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha says.

"They're worried about their families. Many of them came here to escape danger and they have built their lives in Omaha and in Nebraska.

"Those are the kind of decisions my parents made for me when they left Peru for a new opportunity in America," Vargas said.

Elected in 2016, he is the sole Latino member of the Legislature and he represents Legislative District 7, which is 52.5% Latino.  

Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha represents District 5, which includes portions of South Omaha and is 39.9% Latino.  

Four other legislative districts in northeastern, central and western Nebraska are more than 21% Latino now, headed by District 35 in Grand Island, which is 33.5% Latino and represented by Sen. Dan Quick.

In South Omaha, the 24th Street business district that once housed eastern European shops is now home to block after block of Latino businesses along with Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and festive Cinco de Mayo celebrations. 

Nebraska is 10.5% Hispanic or Latino now, according to the American Community Survey at the U.S. Census Bureau. That percentage has doubled since 2000.

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While Trump has continued to issue occasional threats, or tweets, about a looming immigration enforcement sweep, administration officials have said the effort would target people who have received final deportation orders requiring them to leave the country.

That's an estimated 1 million people in a population of 11 million undocumented immigrants, according to most estimates.

The growing immigrant imprint in Nebraska is substantial.

Latinos, in particular, have been the fuel for the state's recent population growth.

And Latinos score a 75% labor force participation rate, the highest figure in terms of race or ethnicity in data compiled by David Drozd, research coordinator for the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research. 

More than 10% of the population in two South Omaha legislative districts and in the Grand Island legislative district are not U.S. citizens, according to a recent study, although those figures do not equate to illegal presence in the United States.

For those who are here without documentation, some of whom may have been living and working in Nebraska for decades and raising their families here, this is a tense moment. 

"What I'm hearing is people are being cautious now," Vargas says.

"We've been trying to make sure that people know they have rights so they know what to do if there's a knock on the door. These are scary scenarios for people."

Organizations like Nebraska Appleseed, ACLU of Nebraska and the Heartland Workers Center in South Omaha are among those who are there to help, Vargas said.

Family separation is perhaps the primary, and certainly the most highly emotional, fear.

"These are people who have jobs and children in our schools and they are members of our community," Vargas said.

"Do we want to disrupt the fabric that is our community and move back from what is the American foundation of supporting immigrants (and) providing a beacon of hope and opportunity?

"I think we need to stay idealistic and hope (for) federal policy that enables people to stay and work here and be on a pathway to citizenship.

"I ran because I believe people need to be in position to unite our community and to build bridges," Vargas said. "That's my job.

"And I hope this very dark chapter in our current history provides some opportunity to come together now."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.


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