"Dreamers" licenses debated; Attorney General, Chambers spar on sentencing

May 13, 2015, 6:22 a.m. ·

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Children brought to this country illegally would be eligible for drivers licenses, under a bill being debated by the Nebraska Legislature. And Attorney General Doug Peterson is fighting back against a bill to ease some prison sentences.


Nebraska’s the last state that doesn’t offer drivers licenses to so-called "Dreamers" – people who came to this country illegally when they were children. President Barack Obama’s administration protected them from deportation by executive action in 2012, but then-Gov. Dave Heineman ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles not to offer drivers licenses. Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist introduced legislation to authorize those licenses. Scottsbluff Sen. John Stinner, noting that 28 percent of his district is Hispanic, supported the bill. "These people are not looking for handouts, they’re filling jobs that are desperately needed to sustain and grow our local economies. They are the plumbers, the electricians, feedlot workers, cement crew members. They are the people who shingle your roofs -- the heavy equipment operators and the packing plant laborers. They are the restaurant workers and the people who make your beds at the hotel. Colleagues, we cannot penalize young people for something they had no say in," he said.

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene acknowledged Dreamers’ hard work, but opposed the bill. "Do I want to help these kids? Yes, but I want to do it right. Yeah, it’s good for the economy – these guys work. I’ve been in a lot of big farming operations in eastern Colorado and western Kansas. That’s the only people working. And when you go to the Walmarts and the stores and the towns of Garden City or Scottsbluff, you see two-parent families. They have character. They go to church. But does that allow you to break the law? No," he said.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs committee, worried the bill could allow illegal immigrants to vote using the state’s same-day registration for early voting. "If someone shows up to vote at an election office, they register to vote and they wish to vote on the same day, that person will be asked to show a driver’s license. If they have one, they will be asked to fill out a voter registration form. If they fill out the voter registration form, they will be handed a ballot, and the ballot will be counted. Which means the only thing preventing a person with a driver’s license who is also a noncitizen from voting is that person’s willful desire to accurately fill out their voter registration form," Murante said.

Nordquist said as a practical matter, that would not happen, because DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) recipients are on a tight leash. "When it comes to their criminal record, a felony or a couple of significant misdemeanors is enough to get you deported. I mean that’s the facts of DACA. And an applicant who makes a false statement on a voter registration, according to the secretary of state, is guilty of a class 4 felony and up to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. So just practically speaking, is somebody going to risk their ability to stay in this country to be able to cast one vote?" he asked.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion said the bill was an example of liberals trying to take over Nebraska. "The progressives have attempted to take our state and make it like California, make it like New York, make it like all the progressive, leftist states: soft on illegal immigration, driver’s license for illegals. Gay rights. Of course Medicaid expansion was a few weeks ago. These are all the things they seek to do to our state to make us like the liberal states, the blue states like California," he said. "Of course we didn’t become a great state, we didn’t become who we were being like California. We’re a significantly better state."

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, who has made the bill his priority, countered Kintner by listing groups supporting the bill, including The League of Nebraska Municipalities, the Nebraska Restaurant Association, the Nebraska Cattlemen, and the Lincoln, Omaha and state chambers of commerce – "hardly the liberal groups that Sen. Kintner would indicate," he said.

Debate on the bill continued late Wednesday afternoon. There was a test vote earlier in the day on an amendment by opponents, to replace licenses with driving privilege cards. It drew only 14 votes, with 29 senators opposed. It would take 25 votes to pass the bill, but 30 to override a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Doug Peterson is fighting back against a bill easing certain prison sentences that is one round of voting away from passage. The bill by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers would abolish most mandatory minimum sentences and restrict the use of habitual criminal statutes to lengthen sentences.

An amendment says a third felony has to be violent or sexual to qualify someone as an habitual criminal. Peterson says that leaves out too many crimes. "Some of these we think are pretty serious: firearms issues, explosives issues, being convicted for a class 3 felony with regards to possession of explosives. You’ve got the sex labor trafficking violation, you have unlawful gang recruitment, which is a class 4 felony, racketeering, which is a charge brought against organized crime. All of these things, if this bill is passed, and they were the third felony conviction, we would not be able to seek an enhanced sentence," he said.

Chambers dismissed Peterson’s concerns as nothing new. "He’s playing what you might call the ‘fear card.’ He’s a brand new guy, he knows nothing about the prison system. Knows nothing about government. But he’s trying to find his way, so he’ll make some blunders along the way," he said.

Supporters of Chambers’ bill have argued sentencing should be up to judges, not prosecutors’ decisions on what charges to bring. Opponents say the charges it would abolish are important for keeping hardened criminals off the street.