LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers gave resounding approval Thursday to a bill that would allow the children of illegal immigrants to qualify for driver's licenses.
Senators voted 37-8 to overturn a policy started three years ago by former Gov. Dave Heineman, which eventually left Nebraska as the only state not to allow driver's licenses for a special category of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The bill now advances to the second of three rounds of consideration.
Supporters of Legislative Bill 623 had to wait out eight hours of debate before 39 of them voted to cut off a filibuster.
At the root of the dispute is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, begun in 2012 through an order by President Barack Obama. Immigrants who are granted DACA status get work permits, Social Security numbers and a two-year, renewable deferral from deportation.
The first-round debate, begun Wednesday, grew heated at times.
State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, who sponsored the bill, argued that although the DACA immigrants were born in other countries, they've been raised and educated in Nebraska. He said Nebraska has invested in such young people and would be foolish to let them leave for other states where they can legally drive.
Much of the debate focused on the nation's immigration system, which many lawmakers call broken. Several conservative senators said they didn't want to condone illegal immigration but said it's wrong to blame children for parents' actions.
Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, who voted against the bill, said she sympathizes with the young people it would help but feels more for the millions of immigrants waiting to legally come to the United States.
"What do we say to them?" she asked.
Opponents have an ally in Gov. Pete Ricketts, who says he opposes giving state benefits — including drivers licenses — to illegal immigrants. The governor has not yet said whether he would veto the bill, which has the support of many of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature as well as business and agriculture groups.
It would take 30 votes to override a veto.
Lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have required the state to issue driving privilege cards, distinct from licenses, to the immigrants.
But they adopted a different amendment that would require the immigrants to return their licenses when their term of deferred action expires. Because DACA was started by executive order, the next president could similarly end it.
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