Coalition Seeks Driver’s Licenses for Nebraska ‘Dreamers’

By GRANT SCHULTE | January 23, 2015

Ranchers and immigrant-rights groups are in the rare position of working together to try to change Nebraska’s status as the only state that denies driver’s licenses to young people protected from deportation because they were illegally brought to the United States as children.

The groups gave their support Wednesday to a new bill that would allow licenses for youths who qualify under the Obama administration program, saying the current policy hurts Nebraska’s economy by making it harder for the immigrants to find jobs in industries that need them.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, the measure’s lead sponsor. “Why would we want to limit their ability to work and contribute to our economy?”

The state directive was approved in 2012 by former Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican who campaigned heavily against illegal immigration. His successor, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, said during his campaign that he would maintain the policy. Ricketts argued that those who arrived in the country illegally shouldn’t receive privileges intended for legal residents.

A similar law in Arizona was blocked by a federal appeals court in July, leaving Nebraska as the only state with such a policy.

The bill’s prospects are uncertain in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 35-13, plus one independent.

But in addition to support from immigration and worker advocacy groups, the measure is backed by the influential Nebraska Cattlemen Association and the Nebraska Restaurant Association. Both industries rely on immigrants to fill open jobs as the state confronts a labor shortage.

“This is about growing Nebraska and being pro-business,” said Kristen Hassebrook, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Cattlemen Association. “We’re looking for people who want to live in rural Nebraska, who have the requisite skills to work with us, and who want to do the work that we do. And often, the folks at the top end up being from an immigrant background.”

The federal policy, which took effect in 2012 and is known as the DREAM Act, grants a temporary reprieve to young immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. It applies only to those with clean criminal records who are in school, have received high school diplomas, or served in the U.S. military. An estimated 2,700 youths in Nebraska qualify.

Juan Gallegos, 25, was brought from Mexico illegally when he was 12 years old, and settled with his family in Hastings, Nebraska. He earned a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and started looking for jobs after he graduated. But without a driver’s license, Gallegos said he was forced to move to Colorado so he could get one and find work. He came back only because of a family emergency.

“Without a driver’s license, it became clear I wasn’t going to find something suitable, especially in rural Nebraska,” Gallegos said. “Some of us have worked very hard, and it feels like a glass ceiling that we can’t get past.”

Nebraska’s policy also faces a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, which filed a lawsuit in June 2013 on behalf of four Omaha residents. ACLU attorneys argue the policy wasn’t run through a public hearing and comment period as required, and violates constitutional due-process rights. Attorneys also say it violates a federal law that requires states to recognize deferred-action status when granting licenses.

Heineman argued that the policy complies with a 2009 state law that bans public benefits for those not lawfully in the United States, and that the president’s deferral program doesn’t make the immigrants legal citizens.

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