Nebraska’s two-year-old policy of denying driver licenses to a select group of young immigrants faces fresh scrutiny in the courts and from members of the state legislature in coming weeks.
An estimated 2000 Nebraska residents with a specific immigration status remain unable to get a driver’s license and it's unlikely Gov. Dave Heineman will change the policy during his remaining months in office. Nebraska is the only state blocking some children of undocumented immigrants from getting their licenses. A 2012 change in federal immigration policy, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), provided temporary work permits and Social Security cards to a group of immigrants brought to the country by their parents.
“They had to be younger than 16 when they arrived,” said Creighton University economics professor Diana Thomas, who studies the issue. Thomas says a successful DACA applicant will “basically be exempted from deportation for a two year period of time.”
Itzel and Maria Marquez at the Department of Motor Vehicles in South Omaha last February, accompanied by their attorney (L) Amy Miller. (Photo: ACLU)
The policy of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles singles out the DACA participants as being ineligible for a driver’s license, even if other categories of immigrants are allowed to legally drive.
The state’s policy is being challenged in Lancaster County District Court. The lawsuit was filed by four individuals, ranging from ages 23 to 17, who came to the United States as children with parents who did not secure proper immigration documentation. The complaint filed in District Court argues the rule “places severe and often insurmountable burdens” on their ability to get and keep jobs “as well as on their ability to fully contribute to their communities, assist their families, and accomplish everyday tasks.”
Itzel Marquez, a 17-year-old graduate of Omaha South High School, added her name to the lawsuit, stating the policy “is not fair.”
Maria Marquez, Itzel’s 20-year-old sister, attends the University of Nebraska at Omaha and works in a law office. She calls the state’s decision “a slap in the face” since the intent of the federal policy was to encourage this segment of the immigrant population to get educated and earn a living while America reworks its immigration regulations.
“I’ve been given Social Security. I’ve been given a work permit. I can’t get a driver’s license,” Maria said. “That didn’t feel good at all.”
When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented DACA in 2012, Governor Heineman issued an executive order authorizing the DMV to change its rules. In a press release issued at the time the Governor stated:
“President Obama’s deferred action program to issue employment authorization documents to illegal immigrants does not make them legal citizens. The State of Nebraska will continue its practice of not issuing driver’s licenses, welfare benefits or other public benefits to illegal immigrants unless specifically authorized by Nebraska statute.”
The lawsuit, filed for the four plaintiffs by the American Civil Liberties Union, says not only does the policy violate the spirit of the federal mandate, but it was implemented without the approval of the state legislature or a public hearing which, they argue, should have taken place in this case.
There is also a call from some in the Nebraska State Legislature to drop the restriction. State Senator Jeremy Nordquist, representing Omaha, plans to introduce a bill clearing the way to provide licenses for those approved for the DACA status. The issue attracted support from the Nebraska Cattlemen Association. The group represents member ranches and feedlots which on occasion hire immigrants. The association has previously joined other business and trade organizations in calling for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
Kristen Hassebrook, speaking for the Association, told the Omaha World-Herald “If they don’t have valid driver’s licenses, not only are they not able to get to work, but they are unable to drive at work. That leaves the employer open to a lot of liability.”
“They would be able to hold down a job, go to work every day, pay taxes and just be productive members of society,” said Thomas. “Making it difficult for people to get to work means you are giving them a choice between either not working and being dependent on others or driving illegally,” Thomas said, “and we don’t want either one of those things.”
The Marquez sisters, who occasionally drive without a valid license, wish they did not have to break the law for the sake of getting to and from their classes and jobs.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Itzel. “If you don’t have your license you could get in serious trouble, especially if you weren’t born here.”
Her sister Maria adds it’s also “the little things” like providing an I.D. when returning something to a store or getting a car loan that can go from bothersome to impossible without an official state form of identification.
When explaining all the ways the rule affects her daily life, Maria’s voice cracks and eyes tear up.
“It was just unbelievable to think that this is my home and I can’t do stuff” that is commonplace for other residents, she said.
“I told my dad, I understand why the policy is here, but still just hurts every rejection I get.”
Luis Marquez with his daughters, Maria and Itzel, on the porch of their home. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)
“This simple plastic card is the key,” Luis said. “They can drive. They can get credit from the bank. Without it you have to watch out for yourself and be alert.” Having lived in Nebraska for more than 16 years without necessary documentation, Luis also drives without a Nebraska license.
The Marquez sisters’ lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in Lancaster District Court late in September.