LINCOLN — Maria Marquez-Hernandez used to collect volunteer experiences for her résumé because she couldn't legally hold a job.
Now the 20-year-old architecture student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is looking to earn real work experience along with a wage.
She is among the first wave of young immigrants brought to this country illegally who have been granted two-year work authorization under a new presidential program.
“It felt amazing,” said Marquez-Hernandez, whose parents brought her from Mexico to Omaha when she was 5 years old. “I no longer have the fear of what am I going to do when I get out of college.”
Her relief was tempered somewhat when she recently learned she won't be granted a driver's license in Nebraska, which could make any job search more difficult.
Gov. Dave Heineman wasn't playing chicken three months ago when he promised to deny driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants given work authorization under a program called “deferred action for childhood arrivals.”
As of last week, the state had rejected license applications from eight immigrants who qualified under the federal program, said Bev Neth, director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles.
The license rejections have riled immigration lawyers, who called the state's policy discriminatory.
“It seems pretty clear in our statutes that anyone who has a work permit issued by Homeland Security is eligible for a driver's license,” said Omaha attorney Mark Curley. “For some reason, this group has been singled out.”
The Obama administration's deferred action program focuses on immigrants under age 31 brought to the country illegally before age 16. To receive the two-year work permit, the applicants must have no criminal record and must be in school or have a high school diploma.
The president intended it as a step toward the Dream Act, a legislative proposal that sought to put young, educated illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. The proposal has twice failed to gain the support of a majority of lawmakers.
Critics argued that the president thwarted the will of Congress by granting deferred action to young immigrants. They also said it represented a political move by Obama to shore up support among Latinos ahead of Election Day.
Heineman has said Nebraska won't provide state benefits such as driver's licenses to those in the country illegally.
“It's not good policy,” Darcy Tromanhauser, with Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, said of the governor's stance. “We have talented youth who grew up in Nebraska, and they want to work, but they can't get to work.”
Advocacy groups who support the deferred action program say roughly three dozen immigrants in Nebraska have been approved so far. Federal officials reported, as of Nov. 15, nearly 53,300 immigrants have received the approval nationally out of about 309,000 applicants.
Advocates estimate as many as 1.7 million people could be eligible for the program.
Nebraska is one of three states to declare it won't grant driver's licenses to immigrants who obtain deferred action approval. The others are Arizona and Michigan, said Tanya Broder, a staff lawyer with the California-based National Immigration Law Center.
About 15 states have either started granting licenses to deferred action applicants or indicated they will, Broder said. Other states have not yet announced their intent.
Iowa has not decided whether it will issue licenses to deferred action applicants, said Kim Snook, director of driver services for the Iowa Department of Transportation. The state has not received an application, she added.
In Nebraska, a federal employment authorization card represents a valid form of identification when applying for a driver's license, according to the state's Department of Motor Vehicles website. Once the immigrants receive work authorization, they also are qualified to apply for a Social Security card.
The state runs information from immigrants who apply for driver's licenses through a real-time database operated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Applicants who come back with a code denoting their acceptance in the deferred action program are automatically denied licenses, Neth said.
When told that some lawyers have called the denials a violation of state law, Neth replied, “That's their interpretation.”
State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, an advocate of strict immigration enforcement, commended Nebraska officials for not abdicating their responsibility.
He questioned how illegal immigrants can lay claim to a privilege they are not entitled to receive in the first place.
“What it essentially comes down to is the federal government pushing amnesty on the states,” Janssen said.
Dazmi Castrejon, an immigration attorney from Omaha, said others who came to the country illegally have been able to obtain Nebraska licenses because they had valid work authorization.
Such applicants fall under a category called “cancellation of removal.” They have to have been in the country for at least 10 years and free of serious criminal convictions.
Neth said the assorted classification of immigrants by the federal immigration agency is confusing, but she was unaware of illegal immigrants who obtained driver's licenses in Nebraska.
Omaha lawyer Sylvia Rodriguez said several categories of undocumented workers have received licenses in Nebraska. She sided with those who think Nebraska's policy singles out one type of immigrant.
“I don't think,” Rodriguez said. “I'm sure they're discriminating against this one group.”
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