LINCOLN– It was the Fourth of July when 12-year-old Juan Gallegos and his family left their home in Mexico and arrived in the United States on visitor’s visas. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Gallegos said. “It was like a celebration; there were fireworks everywhere.”
However, Gallegos and his family never returned to Mexico. He and his family overstayed their visas and 14 years later continue to live in Nebraska.
Now, Gallegos not only holds the title of board member for the nonprofit Nebraskans for Peace, but also is a “Dreamer” as one of an estimated 2,300 individuals in Nebraska who qualify under President Obama’s executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.
“Nebraska is my home. I’ve been able to pursue my dreams here,” said Gallegos, who lives in Lincoln.
Dreamers, however, have been fighting a two-year battle in the Nebraska Legislature. Currently, Nebraska is the only state that does not allow Dreamers to obtain driver’s licenses. But, things may be looking up for these individuals with new found support from the business community, including the Lincoln, Omaha and statewide chambers of commerce, which said they favor passage of LB 623. Sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, the bill would allow Dreamers to get Nebraska driver’s licenses.
More than 200 people came to support the bill during its public hearing and it has support from various interest groups including the Nebraska Cattlemen Association, ACLU, Nebraska Restaurant Association and the Nebraska Safety Council. Twenty-eight lawmakers have signed on as sponsors of the bill.
The bill would affect young people who qualify under DACA, which was intended to focus on deporting individuals who are threats to U.S. national security instead of focusing on immigrants who are contributing members to society and have been in the United States for an extended period of time.
Individuals who qualify for DACA, or Dreamers, must have:
-Entered the United States before the age of 16
-Been under the age of 31 before June 15, 2012
-Been in the United States for five years consecutively before June 15, 2012
-Be enrolled in school, have a high school diploma or GED, or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard or Armed Forces
-Not been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor
-Not posed any threat to .U.S. national security.
Dreamers in Nebraska include individuals who work in everything from accounting to graphic design and come from all areas of the state, according to Darcy Tromanhauser, program director for immigrants and communities at Nebraska Appleseed, a statewide advocacy organization.
Gallegos worked in Colorado for a year and a half for work before returning to Nebraska for a family emergency. His Colorado driver’s license only has two more months before it expires.
Alejandra Ayotitla is a student at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln majoring in psychology with minors in Spanish and human rights. Ayotitla works at El Centro de las Americas in Lincoln but must take the bus or find a ride whenever she has to travel to work or school.
Ayotitla said taking the bus is time consuming and difficult to schedule. “It’s really hard to handle responsibility without being able to drive,” Ayotitla said.
Nebraska Appleseed said in a statement: “By not providing them a driver’s license, these youth continue to be held back and cannot reach their full potential. We, as a state, risk losing these talented young Nebraskans to other states, where they would be provided a driver’s license.”
Opponents of the bill include Gov. Pete Ricketts and Susan Gumm of Omaha, who told the legislative committee that a driver’s license should be a privilege reserved for citizens and that it would make it easier for the individuals to compete for jobs.
Adoni Faxas, the political-cultural chair and next year’s president of UNL’s Mexican American Student Association or MASA, said the organization has worked closely with the Latino community to raise awareness about social issues.
“LB 623 needs to be passed and I believe Nebraskans need to be aware that this does affect us Nebraskans,” Faxas said. “This isn’t awarding criminals because these immigrants aren’t criminals. These immigrants are just escaping like violence or problems in their country.”