Arizona pushes new illegal immigration fight, but other states steer clear

Arizona is not issuing driver's licenses to immigrants protected by President Obama's 'deferred action' program. But on this illegal immigration issue, most states are going the other way.

Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic/AP/File
Student protesters walk towards the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix in August 2012 after Gov. Jan Brewer ordered state agencies to deny driver's licenses and other public benefits to young illegal immigrants who obtain work authorizations under an Obama administration policy.

Arizona is still targeting illegal immigration, but this time, almost no states are following.
 Not long after President Obama decided in 2012 to "defer action" on the deportation of many young undocumented immigrants – allowing them to stay in the country legally for two years – Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) fired back. She announced that none of the people protected by Mr. Obama's decision would be eligible for driver's licenses in her state.

On Sept. 17, she doubled down on that decision, saying that those granted "deferred action" for other reasons – such as domestic violence and human trafficking – would also be refused driver's licenses, though they had been granted them in the past.

Two years ago, when Arizona passed a "show me your papers" law that allowed law-enforcement to inquire about a resident's immigration status during routine traffic stops, a number of states followed suit. But the state stands mostly alone in making driver's licenses the next frontier in the fight against illegal immigration.

Only Nebraska has joined Arizona in withholding driver's licenses from candidates eligible for the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Others such as Michigan and North Carolina have considered similar ideas, but a larger number of states are actually going in the opposite direction: opening driver's licenses for more residents regardless of legal status.

The willingness of states to increasingly accommodate drivers who lack legal status portends a changing political climate, says Audrey Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

Young men and women who were brought into the country as minors have generated strong support, and "the last presidential election put a lot of pressure on the Republican Party to get serious about changing the immigration policy of the country," she adds.

Arizona's latest effort to keep unauthorized immigrants from obtaining a driver's license surfaced in federal court documents as part of a lawsuit against Governor Brewer. The lawsuit alleges that her driver's license stance is discriminatory. Brewer argues that the state, not the federal government, has the authority to determine who gets a driver's license.

Mr. Obama's deferred action program, which took effect in August 2012, grants eligible immigrants a work permit. Through July 2013, more than half a million people under age 31 who came to the United States before they turned 16 have applied for deferred action, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency has approved 430,236 applications.

The federal program prompted many states to review their rules for issuing driver's licenses. This year, lawmakers in some 25 states took up the subject in the context of immigration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Before 2013, immigrants could obtain driver's licenses or special driving certificate only in New Mexico, Washington, and Utah regardless of legal status, says Ann Morse, a spokeswoman for the NCSL.
 But earlier this month, California passed legislation that allows those in the country illegally to get a driver's license. The state is home to the largest number of immigrants in the country – including more than 2.6 million who lack legal status, according to the University of Southern California's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
 Illinois, Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon, Maryland, Nevada, and Vermont also have created laws expanding access to licenses or driving certificates irrespective of legal status. Those laws will take effect between November and January 2015.

Meanwhile, a National Immigration Law Center review in June concluded that some 45 states issue licenses to DACA recipients.

That's not to say all states were quick to embrace the idea of granting driver's licenses to the young immigrants. In the midst of a lawsuit, Michigan rescinded its decision to not issue licenses, and as criticism mounted, North Carolina abandoned a plan to mark the licenses with pink stripes, though a "no lawful status" designation remains.

In Arizona, a campaign by Citizens for a Better Arizona is underway to try to change the governor's stance.

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