'Dreamer' immigrants in Arizona get driver's licenses after legal fight

'Dreamer' immigrants in Arizona get driver's licenses after legal fight
Ramon Maldonado waited in line at a Phoenix motor vehicles office starting at 5:30 a.m. Monday. He applied for a driver's license and passed the test. (Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

Sunrise was still hours away when Ramon Maldonado showed up at an Arizona Department of Transportation office Monday hoping to get a driver's license.

After waiting 2 1/2 years for permission to take the exam, Maldonado wasn't about to wait a minute longer than necessary. He wasn't alone: When he arrived at 5:30 a.m., more than two hours before the Phoenix office opened, half a dozen people were already in line.


The driving test was more nerve-racking than difficult, Maldonado said — especially with half a dozen news crews videotaping his attempts to parallel park.

"But I passed," he said. "It feels good to have a license and not worry about how to get around."

Gov. Jan Brewer had tried to keep immigrants who are covered by President Obama's deferred deportation program from obtaining state driver's licenses and ID cards. The state filed an emergency appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court last week, but the high court refused to intervene.

U.S. District Judge David Campbell issued a preliminary injunction ordering Arizona to stop enforcing the ban as of Monday. That cleared the way for an estimated 22,000 immigrants who are covered by Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to apply for licenses. The young immigrants call themselves Dreamers.

Transportation Department spokesman Timothy Tait said the agency didn't know how many Dreamers had obtained licenses or IDs on Monday, but he said that turnout at Motor Vehicle Division offices was much heavier than usual. At the Maryvale office on Phoenix's west side, more than 100 people were waiting when the doors opened. In south Phoenix, the line started forming at 4 a.m.

Maldonado, 19, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 8, became the first Dreamer to get a license at the Maryvale office. "It feels so nice," he said. "You don't have to be hiding from nothing. Now I feel like a normal driver."

Obama instituted the deferred action program by executive order in 2012, giving young immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally before their 16th birthday and who met other requirements a reprieve from deportation and the ability to receive work permits. Last month, he announced an executive action that could defer deportation for up to 5 million more people.

In Arizona, however, the governor banned Dreamers from receiving any state benefits, including driver's licenses and IDs. When the Supreme Court turned down Brewer's emergency appeal last week, she vowed to keep fighting.

"The right to determine who is issued a driver license is reserved for the states — not the federal government or an unelected judiciary," Brewer said last week, calling the outcome "outrageous."

"Arizona has the constitutional right and authority to enforce state statute," she said in a statement. "This right must be protected. It must be defended. And as long as I am governor, I will do exactly that."

Brewer, whose term as governor ends next month, did not comment Monday.

Arizona has until Feb. 22 to ask the Supreme Court for a full hearing on the driver's license ban.

Judge Campbell is scheduled to hear oral arguments in January on whether to make his injunction permanent.

Daniel Pochoda, legal director for the ACLU of Arizona, said the Supreme Court was unlikely to take up the issue now that Arizona was issuing driver's licenses to the immigrants.


"It's happened. It's concrete," he said. "We think we're on good grounds to say that this has ended with the right legal result and the right human result."

Now, Nebraska is the only state that refuses to issue driver's licenses to Dreamers.

A co-founder of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, Dulce Matuz, said Arizonans supported the Dreamers. She cited a 2012 Arizona State University survey that found nearly three-quarters of registered voters favored a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally — a move that exceeds the president's executive actions.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last month found a similar level of support nationwide.

"Things are changing," said Matuz, who emigrated from Mexico. "And they're not changing because of elected officials. They're changing because of ordinary people that have the courage to stand up and say, 'Enough is enough.'

"We're not giving up," she said. "We're American in every way.... We know we're on the right side of history."

Jose Chavez Herrera would agree with that sentiment. He was shaking from emotion and the early morning chill when he walked out of the motor vehicle office with an ID card Monday.

"It's going to change my life," he said. "I used to go to places with my Mexican ID and they would be like, 'No, we don't take that,' or, 'You cannot do this because you have this ID.'"

Now, Herrera said, "it's like I'm in the community with Arizonans."

Twitter: @kbaxter11