After coming to the United States from Mexico with visitor visas and overstaying them, Juan Gallegos' family arrived in Hastings, Nebraska, on the Fourth of July in 2001 for an "awesome welcome" with fireworks and outdoor barbecues, he said. The state became his home and by his senior year of high school, Gallegos won a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska for his volunteer work teaching English to adult immigrants.
After college, he looked for an internship or a job. "But I wasn’t able to do most things because I didn’t have a driver’s license or Social Security," he said. "I wasn’t able to work.”
Now 26 and working as a paralegal for a law firm specializing in immigration, Gallegos received his first driver’s license from Nebraska Friday morning after the state Legislature overturned Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a bill that sought to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. Under the new law, immigrants with temporary work visas granted by the Obama administration can now obtain driving rights in all 50 states, a landmark moment for immigrants across the nation.
“Now that I have my Nebraska driver’s license, I can feel safe going to the grocery store or going to work," said Gallegos. "I can do all these things without worrying about ending up in a really bad position.”
President Barack Obama announced in 2012 he would allow some children of undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary residency status. Most states recognized the national measure, but Nebraska held out, saying the immigrants were still in the country illegally and therefore couldn't obtain driver's licenses.
Obama's executive actions offer a renewable two-year work permit, exemption from deportation, and the opportunity to receive a Social Security card and driver’s license to immigrants who arrived before they were 16, have not been convicted of a felony and have graduated or are currently enrolled in high school or a GED program.
Ricketts, a Republican, vetoed the Nebraska bill after it initially passed 34-9. But the Legislature voted Thursday to overrule him.
“This victory really belongs to the talented young people sharing stories of how the ban hurts them, their families and their communities,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. “We had an incredibly broad, diverse and impressive coalition,” she said, describing support from business and agricultural leaders in the state.
Gallegos attempted to get a driver’s license in Nebraska after he first received a work visa under Obama's measure, but was denied at his local DMV under state law. “People were getting work authorization but weren’t able to get driver’s licenses because of the policy in Nebraska," he said. Gallegos eventually got a job in Colorado, where he was able to receive a license.
Initially, Arizona also banned driver's licenses for immigrants receiving work visas under Obama's executive actions. But the ACLU challenged the ban, and in January, a federal judge permanently overturned the policy.
Opponents of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants claim such measures promote more illegal immigration. Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the Nebraska law was part of the “fallout” from the successful lawsuit against Arizona.
These are the “consequences of the president’s unilateral actions in 2012,” said Mehlman, suggesting that it ultimately “affects states in a negative way,” as “people who are illegal aliens will be able to compete for jobs with people in the United States.”
In Nebraska, the ACLU will be looking toward the “implementation of the new law,” said Conrad. “The initial reports sound very good. Several of our contacts have passed tests for driver’s licenses ... We want to make sure to give additional public education with DREAMers in Nebraska to make sure they can utilize their rights,” Conrad said, referring to the often introduced but yet to be passed DREAM Act.
Gallegos was among those who advocated for the Nebraska law. He shared his story with legislators and the media, ultimately testifying before a committee in favor of LB 623, he said.
Before the law, he said, there were “people trying so hard to play by the rules to get ahead, but weren’t able to because of something so vital as a driver’s license.”