PHOENIX, Ariz. – Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is at a crossroads. At issue is whether to reverse her executive order that banned driver’s licenses for deferred action recipients, now that the federal government has clarified that they are “lawfully present” in the country.
In Arizona, a reversal would not only impact the lives of young people who were brought to the country illegally as children. Political observers say it could also change the immigration debate in the state.
Some Arizona Republicans think it’s time for Brewer to carve out a new position on the matter.
“I think it would be good for Republicans and Arizona’s image as a whole,” says Jaime Molera, a Republican political consultant who believes Brewer has the political capital to modify her stance.
Brewer earned a reputation nationally as a hardliner on immigration enforcement after she signed SB 1070 into law, which made it a state crime to be undocumented in Arizona. She fought to defend the law all the way to the Supreme Court.
“It was very helpful for her image when running for governor,” observes Molera. “It was good for her and her ability to galvanize more Arizonans.”
But the focus of the debate has shifted, Molera says.
“Now people come to the understanding that these ‘get tough only’ policies don’t get at the problem,” he says. “You have to have secure borders but you also have to have a manageable policy for people to get in the country and come back.”
In her Aug. 15 executive order, Brewer argued that recipients of deferred action are not legally 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.
She has remained silent on her position since Jan. 18, when the federal government published a clarification about recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a two-year deportation reprieve for youth that meet certain criteria.
“An individual who has received deferred action is authorized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be present in the United States, and is therefore considered by DHS to be lawfully present during the period deferred action is in effect,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services states on its website.
Arizona, Nebraska and Michigan currently deny access to driver’s licenses to DACA recipients who are granted a two-year work permit and social security number by the federal government.
Last Wednesday, the Iowa state government backed away from that position.
The day after Iowa reversed itself, Matt Benson, a spokesperson for Brewer, said, “The governor and her legal team are reviewing the guidelines of the federal government and trying to determine how it impacts our state law, and what’s the path forward for Arizona.”
“What the Obama administration did,” says Mario Diaz, former deputy chief of staff and political consultant for former Arizona Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, “is gave her on a silver platter the cover she needed to be able to do a decision.”
Arizona and Michigan are currently facing lawsuits from a coalition of civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for denying driver’s licenses to “Dreamers,” or undocumented youth, who have received a reprieve from deportation.
“The guidance from USCIS confirms the arguments we were making in the lawsuits in Arizona and Michigan,” says Michael Tan, a staff attorney for ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project. “People with deferred action are authorized to be here in the U.S. during the period of the deferred action.”
In the lawsuit they argue 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.
They also argue that Arizona is discriminating against DACA recipients by not granting them driver’s licenses, while other people with different types of deferred action have been able to receive them for years.
Tan explained that there are differences in the way the immigration system classifies people who are allowed to be in the country, which has led to some confusion on the part of the states. For example, those who have a green card or a student visa have an immigration status; those with DACA fall into the category of “lawfully present,” or authorized to be here, with no path to a green card.
Changing the tone of the debate from ground zero
After a landslide of Latinos gave 70 percent of their vote to President Barack Obama the tone of the immigration debate shifted among conservatives. Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake have joined a growing chorus of political figures speaking about the need for “comprehensive immigration reform.”
A bipartisan coalition of businesses, politicians, religious leaders and advocates put forth SANE, a platform for immigration reform in Arizona.
Brewer recently gave some signs that she might be moderating her stance on the immigration issue, says political consultant Diaz.
“She needs to moderate herself because the entire Republican Party machinery and system has moved away from the terrible Russell Pearce language,” he says, referring to the now- recalled Republican Senator and sponsor of SB 1070. “Brewer is a smart politician. She needs to come out with the rest of the governors in the country that are becoming more friendly towards immigration reform,” he adds.
During her state of the state speech, the governor, who has been at odds with the Obama administration over a Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit against SB 1070, put forth a conciliatory tone – without abandoning her focus on border enforcement.
“Once our border is secure, I pledge to work with all fair-minded people to reform our nation’s immigration system,” she said during her speech.
Dulce Matuz, president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Arizona, says Brewer’s words have no meaning if she doesn’t put them into action.
“If she decides to say, 'Let’s continue this in court,’ she’s going to do a disservice to the state of Arizona by wasting resources on this issue,” says Matuz. “At one point her party also needs to make a decision about what they’re going to do with a politician that is representing the party like this.”
Matuz sees this as an opportunity for moderate Republicans in Arizona to make their voices heard.
She is hopeful that Brewer might have a change of heart. After all, it has happened before. Brewer reversed her position on the federal healthcare law, announcing that Arizona would participate in the expansion of the Medicaid program as part of the Affordable Care Act.
“The demographics of the state and entire nation are changing,” says Matuz. “You can no longer be a politician in power and continue to discriminate against our community without consequences.”
Political observers say a reversal on driver’s licenses could be an opportunity for Brewer to remain relevant in her party even as the winds are beginning to shift.
Diaz believes Brewer will change her mind because, he says, this is a chance to leave behind the “stigma of her legacy of SB 1070 by moderating her position on the immigration issues.”
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