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Nebraska closer to giving licenses to immigrant youths

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska moved a step closer Thursday to becoming the last state in the nation to allow driver’s licenses for youths who were brought into the country illegally as children but allowed to stay under a federal program.

Lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill, 37-8, that would give the youths the chance to drive legally. Nebraska is the only state that denies licenses to the youths who qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was approved by President Barack Obama in 2012.

The first-round vote capped a heated debate over immigration. Supporters say the youths — known as DREAMers — play an important role in Nebraska’s economy and shouldn’t be blamed for their parents’ actions.

“By passing this bill, we will strengthen our state and allow our state to keep our educated sons and daughters here at home,” Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said. He was bill’s lead sponsor.

Some conservatives tried to block the bill, saying it rewards illegal behavior. “I don’t think people sneaking across the border and breaking our laws makes us a better or stronger country,” said Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, who led a filibuster.

Two more rounds of voting are required before it goes to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who supports the current state policy, but Thursday’s vote showed a veto-proof majority. Ricketts, a Republican, has declined to say whether he will sign or veto the bill.

Most Nebraska lawmakers support authorizing licenses for the immigrants, who are part of a federal program that gives them a Social Security number and work permit for two years. It also has support from prominent ranching and business groups and conservative leaders, such as Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert. The Nebraska Cattlemen Association and Nebraska Restaurant Association have argued that the state’s current policy makes it harder for immigrants to find jobs in industries that need them.

Sen. Laure Ebke of Crete, a conservative who supported the bill, said she opposes illegal immigration but draws a line with youths who came to the country as children.

“The last time I checked, we don’t hold toddlers who lived in a meth house responsible for what their parents did, and then tag them for life as drug manufacturers,” Ebke said.

The state policy was approved in 2012 by former Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican who campaigned heavily against illegal immigration. Ricketts has argued that those who arrived in the country illegally shouldn’t receive privileges intended for legal residents.

A similar law in Arizona was blocked by a federal appeals court in July, leaving Nebraska as the only state with such a policy. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska is challenging the policy in court.

Nebraska’s policy has also drawn criticism from the state’s previous Department of Motor Vehicles director, Bev Riecks, who led the agency when the ban was enacted. Riecks told a legislative committee in March that she argued against the ban near the end of her tenure in 2013, but her recommendation was rejected.

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The bill is LB623

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