LINCOLN — A federal judge who has already dismissed one challenge to Nebraska’s denial of driver’s licenses to immigrants brought to the country illegally as children will now take up a related lawsuit.

Attorney General Jon Bruning last week obtained the transfer to federal court of a state lawsuit challenging the driver’s license policy. The case had been headed for a Sept. 30 bench trial in Lancaster County District Court.

On Tuesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp ordered the case reassigned to her docket. Earlier this year, Camp threw out a similar lawsuit that originated in U.S. District Court.

Nebraska is the only state that denies driver’s licenses to young illegal immigrants who have obtained two-year renewable permits that allow them to live and work in the country. President Barack Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security to start the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 despite an outcry from opponents of illegal immigration.

Gov. Dave Heineman ordered the State Department of Motor Vehicles to deny licenses to deferred action applicants, arguing that the state should not provide public benefits to immigrants lacking lawful status. The DMV’s former director then directed other staff members to carry out the policy statewide, according to an amended complaint filed last week by the three plaintiffs who have sued Heineman and the DMV.

The Nebraska policy means that nearly 3,000 people in the state who have received the deferred action permits are ineligible for driver’s licenses.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union argue that the governor violated the Nebraska Constitution by ordering a policy change without properly giving notice and holding public hearings. They also say the policy violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution by treating deferred action permit recipients differently from “similarly situated non-U.S. citizens” who apply for and receive licenses.

Last week, Lancaster County District Judge Steven Burns denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, meaning the case was destined for trial. But the attorney general argued the case should be removed from state court because the plaintiffs’ claims can only be resolved by federal law.

Amy Miller, legal director for ACLU of Nebraska, expressed disappointment over the state’s legal tactic.

“Removing this case to federal court with trial imminent is nothing but a last-ditch effort to maintain Gov. Heineman and the DMV’s unlawful practice of denying driver’s licenses to young immigrants the federal government has authorized to live and work in Nebraska,” she said.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Applicants to the federal program must have come to the U.S. before they turned 16, be younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, be in school or have graduated from high school or a GED program, or have served in the military.

After the lawsuit was moved to federal court, it was assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Thalken before Camp took over the case.

In dismissing a similar suit in February, Camp said the plaintiffs failed to show that the state had been inconsistent in denying licenses to those unlawfully present in the country. Without specifics, the judge ruled the case lacked a genuine issue to be resolved at trial.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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