LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers may have charted a collision course with Gov. Pete Ricketts when it comes to banning driver's licenses for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
The Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee voted 5-2 Friday to advance a bill that allows driver's licenses for immigrants exempted from deportation under a controversial directive of President Barack Obama. The bill will be debated on the floor, where a majority of the 49 senators have signed on in support.
The governor said he was "incredibly disappointed" by the committee's action.
"I remain strongly opposed to extending state benefits to individuals who have entered our country illegally, and remain opposed to this legislation," Ricketts said in a press release.
Nebraska is the only state to deny licenses to those granted temporary lawful status under the Deferred
Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
The bill stalled in a March 12 committee vote, but the measure has been gaining momentum since. Twenty-four senators have joined sponsor Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha as co-signers, and Sen. John McCollister of Omaha has made it his legislative priority.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, a conservative Republican, sent a letter to lawmakers stating her support for the legislation.
Nebraska's policy of denying driver's licenses to the young immigrants is the subject of a lawsuit scheduled for an April 29 trial in Lancaster County District Court. The governor criticized the timing of the bill's advancement on the eve of trial.
A similar lawsuit brought in U.S. District Court was dismissed in the state's favor.
Advancement of the bill was applauded by advocates for those who have been granted deferred action status. The federal program issues Social Security cards to qualified immigrants and allows them to work and study in the United States on two-year, renewable permits.
"LB 623 would benefit us all by allowing young Nebraskans to contribute their talents more fully to our state's communities and economy," said Darcy Tromanhauser with Nebraska Appleseed.
Yet the measure will face stiff opposition in floor debate that could prevent it from reaching the governor's desk. Sen. John Murante of Gretna, who voted against the bill in committee, said he thinks the Legislature should wait for a judge to rule on the lawsuit.
"I think there will be an aggressive effort to stop the bill from being enacted," he said.
Supporters of the measure would need 33 votes to halt a filibuster and 30 votes to override a gubernatorial veto.
The committee adopted an amendment that requires the licenses to be surrendered if the DACA program is struck down in court or discontinued by an executive order by a future president.
Murante asked to delay further action on the bill until Wednesday so he could work out details on a second amendment that would require the licenses to clearly indicate the holder had DACA status. Such markings would allow a law enforcement officer to quickly identify an invalid license if the program is discontinued.
After his motion failed, Murante declined to pursue the amendment further. He said he could not recall a similar situation in which senators refused the request of a colleague for more time to craft an amendment.
Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the committee chairman, said there has been ample time for members to propose and draft amendments. He set Friday's executive session after determining there were the minimum number of five votes to advance the bill.
Voting to advance were Smith and Sens. Al Davis of Hyannis, Curt Friesen of Henderson, Les Seiler of Hastings and Tommy Garrett of Bellevue. Sen. Beau McCoy joined Murante in casting "no" votes and Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft abstained.
Several committee members said that although they remain opposed to illegal immigration, Nebraska's policy seems misdirected.
"I feel like we're punishing these kids because of the crimes their parents committed," said Garrett.
Friesen said he supported the state's ban on driver's licenses for the young immigrants, but he changed his mind after hearing their testimony at a public hearing on the bill.
Brasch said she can't support the bill out of respect for immigrants and their children who wait to enter the country legally.
"Driving is a privilege," she said. "It is not as if we are denying them anything that will physically cause them anguish or harm."
About 2,700 young immigrants in Nebraska have been accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program since it began in 2012. Nationally, close to 600,000 have been granted deferred action status.
Groups representing the livestock and restaurant industries support the bill so their employees can drive to their jobs. They have argued that's especially important in rural areas where public transportation is not available.
This week, the League of Nebraska Municipalities also came out in support of the bill.
Former Gov. Dave Heineman instituted Nebraska's policy of not issuing driver's licenses to people given deferred action status. The governor argued that doing so would violate a state law that prohibits public benefits from being provided to illegal immigrants.
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