Published Friday    April 17, 2009
ACLU: Five counties discriminate in immigrant marriage licenses
BY CINDY GONZALEZ
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER

When the Hispanic couple in Grand Island learned a baby was on the way, they decided to make their family official. Tie the proverbial knot.

But someone objected.

According to ACLU Nebraska, the Hall County Clerk's Office denied a marriage license because the man, a native of Mexico, did not have what the employee considered suitable identification. The expectant girlfriend was born in Nebraska.

Now the civil liberties group has threatened a civil rights lawsuit if Hall and four other Nebraska counties don't correct what the ACLU calls unlawful practices that discriminate against illegal immigrants.

"We have an active and ongoing problem," said legal director Amy Miller. "It's embarrassing and wretched in-your-face discrimination."

Marla Conley, the Hall County clerk, declined to respond to specific charges by the ACLU she said the county attorney was reviewing the allegations. But Conley said her staff asks the same of all bride and groom candidates and posts the requirements publicly on its government Web site.

Another county clerk said she was in "total shock" by the ACLU charges faxed Friday to the five counties. She said the accusations were not true.

A member of a group that opposes illegal immigration said marriage is a privilege that shouldn't be afforded to people who aren't supposed to be here.

The ACLU launched its investigation, Miller said, months ago after complaints from attorneys and immigrant advocates. The organization sent human testers Hispanics with heavy accents to the five counties to check compliance with the law.

Each county failed, Miller said, by asking for information beyond what state law requires.

She said the state does not impose many restrictions on who can get married. Nebraska Revised Statutes 42-104 states: "Each party shall present satisfactory documentary proof of and shall swear or affirm to the application giving: (1) full name of each applicant and residence; and (2) the place, date, and year of birth of each."

Even if prospective brides and grooms are in the country illegally, Miller said, they have a constitutional right to get married on U.S. soil.

That point, she said, has been made "crystal clear" by U.S. Supreme Court case law.

"It makes absolutely no difference in the eyes of the law whether someone is here legally or not," said Miller. "They have the right under Nebraska state law and under federal law."

Hall County requirements for a marriage license are posted on a Web site. Among them: a valid driver's license or a Nebraska ID card or a passport.

"We will also need to see a Social Security card," the Web site says.

Although the Web site does not mention this, Conley said in an interview that her staff allows applicants to sign an affidavit in lieu of providing a Social Security number.

Miller suspects that clerks like Conley don't always know what underlings are up to. She asked in her letter that staffs be trained.

The Grand Island man born in Mexico was turned away despite having a photo ID, Miller said. She said he reportedly was told he needed an identification issued in the United States.

Conley said her office accepts valid passports that are issued by foreign governments.

"We have a small staff, so everybody does it the same," she said.

Diane Pinger, Platte County clerk, said she was shocked by the ACLU accusations and called them false.

"What was in that letter we do not do," she said.

She, along with clerks in Phelps and Lincoln Counties, said their respective county attorneys were reviewing the ACLU's letter.

Officials in Dawson County did not return phone calls.

Gov. Dave Heineman declined to comment, and State Attorney General Jon Bruning could not be reached Friday.

Miller said that while the investigation focused on five counties, she suspects improper practices regarding marriage license issuance likely are widespread. She said counties have varied practices, despite having a standard state law as a guide.

Doug Kagan of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom said he can see how confusion arises amid the patchwork of immigrant-related rules within states and on different levels of government. To get a driver's license in Nebraska, for example, applicants must provide a valid Social Security number, which excludes the undocumented population.

"I don't think illegal immigrants should be here, period," Kagan said. "If they're here illegally they should not have any rights or privileges of legal citizens, and that includes marriage licenses."

In her letter, Miller said ACLU tests uncovered employees "creating their own rules that are not authorized by law, which results in illegal refusal of marriage licenses only to new immigrants."

On its Web site, Phelps County says the bride and groom will need to know their Social Security numbers. Illegal immigrants do not typically have a Social Security number but, Miller said, they're legally allowed to marry.

Miller also questioned a demand by Platte County that passports from marriage license applicants include an "arrival/departure record" and be translated into English by an official source like a court translator.

Miller said there was another situation where a prospective groom who was in the country legally but not a citizen went to three counties and was told that "only citizens can get married."

She said that Hispanic man and his girlfriend ultimately traveled to Omaha and were issued a license in Douglas County.

The Grand Island couple, Miller said, also plan a trip to Omaha when work schedules allow. She said their child is now five months old.