Immigration director

Lee Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, makes a point during an interview at the federal immigration service center in Lincoln on Tuesday. Immigration policies in the Trump administration will welcome "people who come to help meet our economic or national needs or interests," Cissna said.

The United States is moving toward a more selective, merit-based immigration policy that "focuses more on employer needs and the needs of the economy," the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Tuesday during a visit to Lincoln.

That policy, which would appear to differ sharply from the Statue of Liberty's open-armed invitation to the tired and the poor, will continue to make room for refugees and people seeking asylum, Lee Cissna said in an interview with the Journal Star.

But the priority will be to welcome "people who come to help meet our economic or national needs or interests," he said, with a priority on "highly needed skills."

"We are in a period of great change," Cissna said. "Change is what the future holds."

Cissna, who was appointed by President Donald Trump last year, visited with employees at the immigration service center in the Haymarket before sitting down for an interview.

The Lincoln site is one of five regional centers in the country and counts 1,100 employees. It's a high-security facility that houses paper and electronic files.

The immigration services agency, which administers the country's naturalization and immigration systems, is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security separate from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a law enforcement agency.  

While the Trump administration is "changing the character of our immigration system," Cissna said, immigration remains "part of our country (and) no doubt remains a part of our national character."

Cissna's mother immigrated from Peru.

Gone under Trump's proposals would be the green card lottery program that opened the door to a diversity of immigrants and the program that has provided a pathway for extended family members of immigrants already living in the United States.

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The new policy will be "more selective, but not less humanitarian," Cissna said.

Asked about the recent U.S. crackdown on the border with Mexico that has separated families by removing children from their parents after they crossed the border seeking asylum, Cissna said "there need to be consequences" for entering the country illegally.

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The United States cannot allow its borders to be "violated with impunity," he said. That creates a crisis, he said, and sometimes the results "can be tragic."

An estimated 11 million people are living illegally in the United States, he said.

With the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program still unsettled, Cissna said administration of the DACA program "continues and will continue until something changes."

Trump announced his intent to phase out the program, which provides legal presence in the United States for young people who were brought to the country as infants or children when their parents or other adults crossed the border illegally, but the issue remains unsettled pending congressional and court action.

Last February, Cissna attracted the attention of The Washington Post when he changed his agency's mission statement to eliminate words describing the United States as "a nation of immigrants" and centered instead on administering "the nation's lawful immigration system."

Tuesday, he pointed to other actions by the agency that he said "have sadly been misinterpreted or misunderstood" by the news media.

"My agency is just trying to administer the law," Cissna said.

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

On Twitter @LJSDon.


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