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ACLU sues Heineman over immigrant driver's licenses

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A civil rights organization on Tuesday sued Gov. Dave Heineman to stop him from blocking more than 1,400 young illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.

The lawsuit, filed by the local American Civil Liberties Union, is the second one prompted by the state's refusal to recognize as legal residents illegal immigrants who were brought into the country as young children.

The lawsuit was filed in Lancaster County Court against Heineman and the state Department of Motor Vehicles on behalf of four plaintiffs, who have secured temporary work papers under an Obama administration policy.

But it’s hard to work without a driver’s license, said 20-year-old plaintiff and Omaha resident Maria Marquez Hernandez.

"Without a license to drive, you constantly face limits on what you can accomplish in your life," Hernandez said in a news release. "It limits the jobs you can apply for, affects where you go to school, and how much you can support your family. Having a driver's license is essential to taking advantage of opportunities, and in many cases, making a living."

Hernandez, who immigrated to the United States when she was 5, got her deferred action last year, which means she legally can live and work in the United States without the worry of deportation.

Eight months later, she has a Social Security number, works a job at a major retail chain and studies as an architectural engineering major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, according to her lawsuit.

Last August, Heineman said Nebraska would deny driver's licenses to the immigrants who became eligible to work in the United States as a result of Obama’s Deferred Status for Childhood Arrivals program.

Nebraska and Arizona are the only two states that have refused to treat deferred status as a gateway to driver’s licenses.

In unilaterally blocking the applications, Heineman violated the state law requiring public input before a policy is made and the state Constitution’s demand for due process, said Amy Miller, legal director for the ACLU.

Heineman should have had a state legislator introduce a bill or opened a comment period with the DMV if he wanted to stop immigrants from getting licenses, she said.

Heineman on Tuesday implied the state Legislature did that, and quoted a bill lawmakers passed unanimously in April 2009.

“Let me read to you what Section One of that bill says: ‘Notwithstanding any other provisions of law, no state agency or political subdivision of the state of Nebraska shall provide public benefits to a person not lawfully present in the United States,’” Heineman said.

Attorney General Jon Bruning will defend Heineman and the DMV against the lawsuit, said Shannon Kingery, spokeswoman with the Attorney General’s Office.

In December, Heineman said the state wants legal immigrants, but disagrees with the federal policy granting temporary work papers to young illegal immigrants. He also addressed the threat of legal action from the ACLU.

"The liberal ACLU is welcome to sue the state of Nebraska anytime they want," Heineman said.

More than 280 immigrants with deferred status applied for licenses from mid-October through February, Miller wrote in the suit.

Workers with a job but without a license are in a tough spot. Nebraska’s sprawling geography and unpredictable weather make it hard for professionals to launch a career without driving, Miller said.

“They need a driver’s license to move freely to get to their work, to go to college classes, church, family appointments.

“To cut off these kids who have demonstrated the highest level of the American dream is bad policy for our state, because they’re our economic future.”

The ACLU’s is the second lawsuit challenging Heineman’s decision. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, on behalf of Nebraska City’s Mayra Saldana, sued the governor and the DMV late last month in federal court.

The policy violates the 24-year-old’s constitutional right to equal protection and is unconstitutional because it's trumped by federal law, the suit says.

Reach Jonathan Edwards at 402-473-7395 or jedwards@journalstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/LJSedwards.

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Related to this story

Jessica Jimenez remembers the day when she qualified for a two-year work permit, a Social Security number, and for a temporary reprieve from immigration laws that might otherwise have resulted in her deportation.

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