Immigrant Sues Nebraska for Driver's License Denial

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A federal lawsuit is challenging the Nebraska DMV's policy of denying driver's licenses to some young immigrants.

Attorney Derek Mitchell says the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program lets young undocumented immigrants stay in the U.S. to work or attend school.

"These were people who had to be here before they were 16 and be here since 2007, and that's what it was for - people who had no choice about coming here really," says Mitchell, an immigrant attorney in Lexington and Grand Island.

He says DACA only lets an immigrant get a work permit, then a Social Security number for taxes. In most states that opens the door for a driver's license.

But the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles isn't giving driver's licenses to immigrants who got their documents through DACA, a denial that's prompted a federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed on May 31 by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund on behalf of a 24 year old Nebraska woman who came to the United States from Mexico at the age of two. Mayra Saldana was granted deferred action under DACA, and says she was denied a job opportunity because she couldn't drive.

The suit says Governor Dave Heineman, in the days following DACA's start last fall, said in a press release, "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 statue." The court filings claim it was a directive the DMV has followed.

The suit also says the Nebraska DMV does give licenses to immigrants who get work permits through other deferral programs.

"This is the same thing, it's just another application for relief under immigration law, so the process should be the same, but they stopped it at no driver's licenses," says Mitchell.

Immigration advocates say no license makes finding and keeping a job harder. It can increase the temptation to drive illegally, and if someone in that situation buys a car, they would not be able to get it insured.

"The factor of not being able to get insurance effects public safety for all of us, not just for those kids, but for all of us," says Yolanda Chavez Nuncio, chair of the Nebraska Latino-American Commission.

Officials say because of strict guidelines few even qualify for DACA. The government says over 2,000 Nebraska residents have applied out of more than 400,000 nationwide.

"The whole effort is to help these kids get their papers temporarily so they can work and they can go to school and contribute," says Nuncio.

"If you're going to say to the children or whoever is involved in this you can go to work now but you're going to have to have somebody take you - then that kind of defeats the purpose," says Mitchell.

That state has not decided if it will fight the law suit. Arizona is the only other state that is also denying licenses for DACA immigrants.