At packed legislative hearing, immigrants urge state to allow them to get driver's licenses

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LINCOLN — Her parents brought her from Mexico to Omaha when she was a little girl.A bill before the Nebraska Legislature brought her out from the shadows. Fatima Flores Lagunas, who had previously been wary of speaking publicly about her immigration status, told state senators at a public hearing Tuesday how she can study and work in the United States without fear of deportation, but she lives in the only state where she can’t get a driver’s license.

Legislative Bill 623 would allow licenses or identification cards to be issued to young adults like her who qualify for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“The state I have called home has turned its back on me,” said the 24-year-old woman, one of dozens of people who packed a hearing room and an overflow chamber to show support for the legislation.

Applicants for deferred action must have come to the U.S. before they turned 16, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, be in school or have graduated from high school, or have served in the military. About 2,700 immigrants have received the status in Nebraska, along with nearly 600,000 nationally.

Most states soon opted to grant driver’s licenses to deferred action recipients, but former Gov. Dave Heineman, who took a hard line against illegal immigration, argued that state law prohibited public benefits from going to those who lack legal status. His policy now makes Nebraska the only state to deny driver’s licenses to the immigrants.

Several deferred action recipients have sued the state to get driver’s licenses. An attorney representing the plaintiffs said if the Legislature repeals the state’s policy, the lawsuit would be dismissed.

On Tuesday, committee members heard support for the bill not just from the young immigrants who want to drive, but also from associations representing retailers, restaurant owners and livestock producers. The state’s economy depends heavily on immigrant workers, said Jerry Kuenning of Imperial, who testified on behalf of the Nebraska Cattlemen. “Nebraska would drop to its knees if it wasn’t for the performance of this labor force,” he said.Roads could be made safer by issuing driver’s licenses to the young immigrants, who must pass the same exam as any other licensed driver, said Bev Reicks, president of the National Safety Council of Nebraska. She said nearly 12 percent of drivers in fatal accidents lack a valid license and 4 percent do not have a license at all.

Reicks directed the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles when the state adopted its policy on deferred action recipients. She said by the end of her tenure with the department last year, she argued that the state should drop the ban, but her recommendation was rejected.

Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, sponsor of the bill, said that under the federal Real ID Act, deferred action recipients officially have lawful status to work in the country. His bill, he said, would require the state to once again follow the lead of the Real ID Act, which was the intent of a 2011 law passed by the Legislature.

Nordquist argued that Nebraska has invested in the “dreamers” through its educational system. Preventing them from driving only makes it harder for the state to reap a return on that investment. Gretna Sen. John Murante, who serves on the committee, asked an immigration attorney who supported the bill if the driver’s licenses would remain valid if the next president rescinds the deferred action program. The attorney said that when a work authorization for one of her clients expires, so does their driver’s license.

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POSTED: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 4, 2015 1:00 AM    |   By Joe Duggan / World-Herald Bureau