LINCOLN — At age 5, Maria Marquez-Hernandez's parents spirited her and sister from poverty in Mexico to a new life across the border in the United States.
Maria took advantage of the opportunities.
She quickly mastered English, was an honor student at Omaha Central, a bassoonist in the philharmonic orchestra at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She mentored freshmen students, and now, as a senior architectural engineering student, is looking at a career in acoustic design.
“The big picture is to help design concert halls, to make them acoustically beautiful,” said Marquez-Hernandez.
But there's a complication: she cannot obtain a driver's license, which, she fears, will be a roadblock when she applies for jobs.
On Tuesday, she will join a budding biochemist, an 18-year-old dreaming of becoming a pediatrician, and her older sister, Itzel, in challenging Nebraska's decision to deny driver's licenses to participants in President Barack Obama's immigrant deferral program.
The American Civil Liberties Union is filing the lawsuit on behalf of the four young immigrants. It is the second lawsuit in as many weeks to challenge Nebraska's stance on participants in the federal program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.
That program, announced by the president a year ago, allows young immigrants brought to the United States as children to remain here legally for at least two years if they have no criminal record and have a high school diploma or are in school.
The newest lawsuit claims that Gov. Dave Heineman failed to follow the state's procedures to change administrative rules, thus nullifying his executive order last August barring driver's licenses.
Heineman, in a press release last year, said that the president's order didn't make such immigrants “legal citizens” and that Nebraska would continue its practice of denying state benefits to those in the country illegally.
In a letter to another immigrant denied a drivers license, the governor put it this way: “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 who have been granted work permits under DACA. Iowa is among the states that reversed their positions earlier this year and began issuing licenses.
Amy Miller, legal director for ACLU Nebraska, said Monday that the governor can't change rules and regulations “by press release.”
“State law is absolutely crystal clear,” Miller said. “Every proposed state rule or regulation gets a public hearing. The governor can't just wake up one morning and order his press secretary to make a rule that affects thousands of Nebraskans.”
Miller also said that if an immigrant applies and receives a work permit from the federal government to remain in this country, that person clearly is no longer an “illegal” immigrant.
Through the end of April, 1,563 immigrants in Nebraska had obtained the work permits, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
According to the ACLU, 285 DACA participants were denied driver's licenses by the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles from mid-October to February.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jon Bruning, whose office will defend Nebraska's policy, said Monday that the office couldn't comment on a lawsuit that it had not seen.
A spokeswoman for Heineman said late Monday afternoon that the governor wasn't available for comment and referred questions to Bruning's office.
The deferred action program has been portrayed as a step toward the federal Dream Act, a proposal to allow immigrants serving in the military or completing college a path toward citizenship. Proponents also say children shouldn't be punished for the actions of their parents.
Critics say DACA was politically motivated to win Latino votes for Obama in the 2012 presidential election. It also is a way to force states to provide amnesty for immigrants who enter the country illegally, critics contend.
Obama implemented the program via an executive order after Congress repeatedly voted against the Dream Act.
Miller said she wasn't familiar enough with presidential powers to comment on the legality of Obama's order. But Nebraska law clearly states that administrative changes such as the one at issue here are subject to the public notice, comment and hearings of the state administrative procedures act, Miller said.
The ACLU's lawsuit is to be filed in Lancaster County District Court in Lincoln.
Last week, a national group, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, helped another immigrant in Nebraska file a lawsuit against the state in U.S. District Court.
That suit claims that the plaintiff's rights are being violated because others who receive deferred action can obtain driver's licenses in Nebraska. The lawsuit also says the denial of driver's licenses violates the Constitution's supremacy clause, which gives the federal government authority to set immigration policy.
Miller said the ACLU was unaware of the federal lawsuit until it was filed. The two lawsuits are very different, she said, but added that she supports any means to nullify what she called a “poor public policy that appears to be politically driven.”
Roadblocks should not be erected against skilled, educated people who are paying taxes, contributing to society and seeking better careers, Miller said.
“If you don't have a driver's license, can you reliably get to work?” she asked.
The ACLU lawsuit asks that the governor's executive order be nullified and that the state be barred from denying driver's licenses to participants in the federal program.
As does the federal lawsuit, the ACLU lawsuit names the governor, the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles and the department's director, Rhonda Lahm, as defendants.
Marquez-Hernandez said she respects that people have differing opinions about immigration.
“We didn't come here in the most legal way,” she said.
But if people understood the poverty, joblessness and hardships her family faced in Mexico, they might understand, according to Marquez-Hernandez.
“This country is made out of immigrants,” she said. “We're not here to steal people's jobs. We're not here to do anything corrupt. We're just here to work.”