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OPINION: Meanness backfires

OPINION: Meanness backfires

Legislature should drop the foolish ban on driving for 'Dreamer' immigrants

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The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program issues Social Security cards to qualified immigrants, allowing them to work and study in the United States on two-year, renewable permits. About 2,700 young immigrants in Nebraska have been accepted into the program since it began in 2012.

These young immigrants, often referred to as “Dreamers,” entered the U.S. as children, with parents who entered the country illegally. To qualify, they must be at least 15 years old, and younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012, with five continuous years of U.S. residency. Those of school age must attend high school. Older ones must have obtained a high school diploma or GED certificate. Some of them have been honorably discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard or Armed Forces.

They lose their status if convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor, and they must pose no threat to national security or public safety. DACA youth are not allowed to vote. It’s not a shortcut to citizenship.

Under Homeland Security rules, they’re not considered illegal. Nebraska is the only state to deny them driver’s licenses. Former Gov. Dave Heineman, leaning with the political winds, instituted the policy of not issuing licenses to residents with deferred action status, saying it would violate a state law that prohibits “public benefits” from being provided to illegal immigrants.

But the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee voted 5-2 Friday to advance a bill, LB 623, that would grant driver’s licenses to DACA immigrants. A majority of the 49 state senators have signed on in support. Other supporters include Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, a conservative Republican, and the League of Nebraska Municipalities. Groups representing the livestock and restaurant industries also support the bill, including the Nebraska Cattlemen Association and Nebraska Restaurant Association.

The reason is simple. People without driver’s licenses have difficulty getting and holding jobs, and Nebraska needs all the willing workers it can get, especially in rural areas where public transportation doesn’t exist. Those who would gain driver’s licenses under the bill grew up here, speak English and often make significant contributions to their communities. Nebraska taxpayers have paid for their education. Some of them are college students.

“Many of these young immigrant Nebraskans were only infants or toddlers when they came to the U.S. and have lived nearly their entire lives in this country. Nebraska is the only home they know,” said Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a supporter of the bill.

Several state senators have said that although they remain opposed to illegal immigration, Nebraska’s policy seems misdirected.

“I feel like we’re punishing these kids because of the crimes their parents committed,” said Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue.

The effort has prompted predictable complaints from anti-immigrant Nebraskans, who argue that the law is the law and Nebraska shouldn’t worry about the misery that the arbitrary denial of a driver’s license inflicts on a young person whose parents entered the country illegally. Of course, it’s illegal to exploit undocumented immigrants too, but few of the same critics clamor for the Americans who employ them to be arrested and fined. In fact, the same voices often complain about the extra paperwork that businesses now have to go through to ensure that they aren’t employing illegal labor. On top of that, it certainly doesn’t enhance public safety to force young people to choose between losing a job or driving without a license.

Challenges to Nebraska’s present policy are in the courts, and it may be upheld. But LB 623 would end the need for a legal challenge and bring Nebraska in line with the rest of the nation in the way it treats Dreamers. As Indiana discovered, the nation’s patience with political meanness is beginning to wear thin. While it might please many Nebraskans to take a hard line out of political spite, in the long run it will hurt the state’s reputation for being business-friendly (or just plain old-fashioned friendly.)

One of these days, Congress will have to resolve the immigration dilemma. Despite the delusions of bigots, it won’t be with a mass deportation of 12 million people. Most likely it will involve improving border security, making it easier for people to immigrate legally and requiring fines and fees for illegal immigrants who have been living and working here for years. It’s ridiculous that political opportunists won’t acknowledge that and get to work on making it happen.

In the meantime, Nebraska would be wise to harness the education and energy of young Nebraska residents who have grown up in our communities and who know no other nation or lifestyle. According to the latest Census estimates, Scotts Bluff County lost more than 400 residents in 2014. Employers all across the state are looking for help. We can’t afford to lose talented young Nebraskans to neighboring states over something as pointless as a lack of fundamental kindness.

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