LINCOLN — The federal government sent a document to Mayra Saldana late last year that said she can live and work in Nebraska without fear of deportation.
But the 24-year-old Lincoln woman can’t drive without fear of breaking the law.
Because Saldana was born in Mexico, Nebraska has denied her applications for a driver’s license three times.
Saldana has challenged those denials by filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.
She argues that the state’s policy conflicts with a recent federal program that grants temporary work authorizations to immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States as children.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning will defend the state against the lawsuit, said Shannon Kingery, his spokeswoman. She declined to comment further.
Gov. Dave Heineman directed the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles to refuse driver’s license applications on the grounds that state law denies public benefits to illegal immigrants. President Barack Obama’s decision to grant two-year renewable work authorizations to the young immigrants “does not make them legal citizens,” the governor said last year.
According to the lawsuit, Heineman wrote in a letter to Saldana: “We welcome legal immigration. Policies that reward illegal behavior are not fair to those individuals that do follow the rules.”
Nebraska and Arizona are the only states that currently deny driver’s licenses to immigrants granted work status under the federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina reversed their denial policies earlier this year.
Iowa has issued about 430 driver’s licenses to young immigrants who qualified for work status, said Mark Lowe, director of the Motor Vehicle Division.
In Iowa, nearly 1,300 immigrants had obtained the federal work authorizations, known as deferred action, through the end of April, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In Nebraska, the number stood at 1,563.
A lawsuit challenging Arizona’s policy is being litigated in federal court. A judge hearing the case declined to issue a temporary injunction halting Arizona’s denials of driver’s licenses for the immigrants.
Saldana, who is represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Chicago, has been granted a Social Security number. She holds a job while studying forensic science at Peru State College, according to the lawsuit.
She was brought to the United States when she was 2 by her parents, who illegally emigrated from Mexico.
Her lawsuit says she has been denied a job in the past because she can’t drive. Nor can she legally drive to buy groceries or take her younger siblings to medical appointments.
Other categories of immigrants who receive deferred action have been granted driver’s licenses in Nebraska, the lawsuit says. Among them are immigrants who come to the United States through unauthorized channels to escape violence or sexual exploitation in their home countries.
Her lawsuit argues that Nebraska’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. The lawsuit also says denying driver’s licenses violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which gives the federal government authority to set immigration policy.
Nebraska’s policy goes against the federal government’s goal of allowing the young immigrants to “come out of the shadows and to participate as full members of our nation’s communities,” the lawsuit says.
The complaint names Rhonda Lahm, director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles.
Saldana asks the federal court to issue a permanent injunction to prevent the state from enforcing its policy.
“It is a policy that goes against federal law,” said Aaron Siebert-Llera, a Chicago lawyer representing Saldana.
The state should expect at least one more lawsuit challenging the policy, said Amy Miller, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. Her organization plans to file its claim in state court, she said.
The president announced the program last summer. As of the end of April, nearly 300,000 young immigrants nationally have received deferred action approval to remain in the country. An estimated 1.7 million youths may qualify for the program.
Under the program, the immigrants can apply for renewals of their work authorization after two years.
Contact the writer: