PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Alejandra Lopez no longer lives with the fear of deportation since she got a work permit in the mail as part of President Obama’s deferred action program.
But for the 19-year-old mother who is married to a U.S. citizen, not having a driver’s license is hampering her ability to find a job or take her 2-year-old son to the hospital in the case of an emergency.
Lopez is one of five plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday by civil rights groups, claiming that an executive order by Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer to ban driver’s licenses for deferred action recipients is unconstitutional.
Lopez is among 1.8 million young people nationally, 80,000 of them in Arizona, who were brought to the United States illegally as children and could be eligible for temporary relief from deportation. More than 53,000 of them have been approved nationally under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants them a temporary work permit for two years and a social security number.
But unlike in other states, DACA recipients in Arizona are prevented from accessing a driver’s license or state ID by an executive order Gov. Brewer issued on Aug. 15.
Brewer has argued that recipients of deferred action don’t have a lawful status in the United States so it would be a violation of Arizona law to give them any type of public benefits, including driver’s licenses.
In the lawsuit, civil rights attorneys claim that the state is violating the supreme clause of the U.S. Constitution that gives the federal government exclusive authority to regulate immigration and make decisions as to who is authorized to be in the country.
“What Arizona law says is that you have to be authorized to be present to get a driver’s license,” said Jennifer Chang Newell, a lead attorney in the lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Immigrant Rights Project. “[Brewer] doesn’t get to make that call. Only the federal government gets to make that call.”
According to USCIS, “Deferred action does not confer lawful status upon an individual.”
Newell explained that there seems to be some confusion between what it means to have an immigration status in the country, for example someone who is in the process of getting a green card, and what it means to have authorization by the government to be in the country, for example a DACA recipient who is temporarily authorized to be here.
“Deferred action is not a form of immigration status, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not legally authorized to be present here,” she said.
Matt Benson, a spokesperson for the governor, said that, “Unlike all previous classes granted deferred action, the DACA program is neither congressionally authorized nor enshrined in federal law.”
ACLU attorney Newell argues that the federal government has used deferred action in other instances -- for example, in cases of certain victims of trafficking, students impacted by Hurricane Katrina and victims of domestic violence – and that Congress has given discretion to the Department of Homeland Security as to how to implement it.
In fact, recipients of these other instances of deferred action have been able to get driver’s licenses in Arizona. According to public records obtained by the Arizona Republic, Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Division has granted more than 40,000 driver licenses and state IDs to non-citizens with work permits in the last eight years.
The fact that the state has chosen to single out one group of deferred action recipients in comparison to others is one of the bases for the federal lawsuit.
Attorneys claim Brewer’s executive order violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because it denies licenses only to deferred action recipients and not others.
The coalition, led by the ACLU, National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), plans to file an emergency injunction in the coming days to ask for an immediate stop to Brewer’s order.
“This is much more than just a legal battle. The fight we fight today is a moral fight. We’ll not tolerate any politician in power to treat DREAMers like second-class citizens,” said Dulce Matuz, president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, an organization that favors a path to citizenship for undocumented youth and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Matuz said that her organization has seen a number of complaints in the last 10 days from DACA applicants who were pulled over by the police for a minor traffic infraction and were incarcerated for several days because they didn’t have a license. Even recipients of DACA who have work permits may be pulled over and jailed at the discretion of the police for driving without a license or an ID.
In Arizona, the police department is now enforcing the “Show me your papers” provision of Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070 by calling Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials when they suspect someone is in the country illegally. In Maricopa County, where ICE officials are present in the jails, a police officer who pulls someone over may simply book the driver directly into jail if he or she doesn’t have a driver’s license or ID.
“It is on a case by case basis. The officer has discretion,” explained Steve Martos, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department.
Carmen Cornejo, another activist and founder of CADENA, a group that advocates for the DREAM Act, said that while there are risks involved in driving without a license, driving is a basic necessity to work and is unavoidable in the case of an emergency.
“This is a sign that the DREAM Act is a necessity, because we have several things in Arizona that are putting at risk the safety of students and youth that qualify for it and have applied for DACA,” she said.
The lawsuit was filed just a few days after soon-to-retire Republican Arizona senator Jon Kyl presented the ACHIEVE Act in the U.S. Senate, a bill that would grant a permanent legal status to undocumented youth.
“We’re disappointed [with the ACHIEVE Act] because it’s not bipartisan and it’s a ‘DREAM-light’ version. It’s similar to the DREAM Act, but doesn’t have a path to citizenship,” explained Cornejo.
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