Nebraska Appleseed has asked a judge to review the state's denial of extended foster care benefits to two 19-year-olds due to their immigration status.
Both teens — one in Omaha, the other in Schuyler — aged out of the state's foster care system and have federal Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.
That status is granted to noncitizen young people who are removed from their homes in the U.S. because of abuse, abandonment or neglect, and who the courts have found shouldn't be returned to their home country because it isn't in their best interest.
Special Immigrant Juveniles can apply for a green card to live and work permanently in the U.S.
Robert McEwen, legal director for the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, said the status means they have protections more similar to refugees than Dreamers, who were brought to the country illegally as minors by their parents.
"So they're pretty vulnerable," he said.
The court cases filed in Lincoln focus on whether the two teenagers are entitled to participate in the state's Bridge to Independence Program, which was created in 2014 and helps support young adults up to age 21 to become self-sufficient.
McEwen said Monday one of the teenagers was accepted into the Bridge to Independence program and approved for Medicaid benefits, until she turned 19 earlier this year.
The other was denied admission to the Bridge to Independence program altogether because he is "not a citizen or a qualified alien," according an Oct. 17 order signed by Karen Heng, deputy director of the Division of Children and Family Services.
There are at least two other cases in Nebraska courts raising the same issue.
McEwen said the state has been helping youth regardless of immigration status in the foster-care system for as long as he can remember. And, he contends, when state lawmakers extended assistance to young adults up to the age of 21, that applied to them, too.
"We allege the statute itself is pretty clear," he said.
But it appears that the state has questions about whether the program can be extended to Special Immigrant Juveniles, due to a law passed in 2009 that prohibits public benefits from going to someone "not lawfully present in the country."
To be considered lawfully present, according to that law, the person must either be a U.S. citizen or be a "qualified alien" under federal code. That classification doesn't include Special Immigrant Juveniles, said Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Kathie Osterman.
She said the department follows the requirements set out in law by LB403: "Under LB403, to receive public benefits, a person must be a United States citizen or have qualified alien status as defined by federal law," she said in an email.
McEwen said the question hasn't yet made its way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, but a case at the Court of Appeals could provide answers.
"This will be a case of first impression," he said, meaning the decision could be used as a guideline.