Supreme Court says Arizona must issue driver’s licenses to immigrant ‘Dreamers’

The Supreme Court made a 6-3 decision to allow Arizona driver's licenses for young immigrant "Dreamers" who entered the country illegally.
The Supreme Court made a 6-3 decision to allow Arizona driver’s licenses for young immigrant “Dreamers” who entered the country illegally.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday dealt Arizona another setback in its battle with the Obama administration over immigration policy, deciding the state must offer driver’s licenses to young immigrants who entered the country illegally as children but were later shielded from deportation as part of a federal program.

In a 6-3 order, the justices turned down an emergency appeal from outgoing Gov. Jan Brewer, who argued that the state had the right to decide who gets a driver’s license.

The court let stand an order from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that said Arizona may not deny driver’s licenses to a group of young immigrants who are authorized to stay in the U.S. and work under President Obama’s 2012 deferred-deportation program.

Carla Chavarria, 21, one of the five plaintiffs in the driver’s license case, greeted the court’s action warily Wednesday. The Arizona Department of Transportation said it was not certain when it would allow “dreamers” — as immigrants brought to the country as children are often called — to apply for licenses.


“There’s still a very small chance Gov. Brewer is going to find a way to try to hold back again,” Chavarria said.

Chavarria, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 7, said that “right now, people are very confused. They’re just kind of waiting to see what’s next. They’re just waiting to hear, ‘Yes, now we can go get our license.’”

Having a license will change her life dramatically, said Chavarria, who attends Scottsdale Community College.

“It gives me time,” she said. “Public transportation, because that’s what I use to travel, it takes a really long time here in Arizona. It takes me two hours sometimes to go to places that I need to be. It will give me time to spend with family. To spend more time at work or school.”

Though the justices did not explain their decision, the conservative-leaning high court has maintained the view that matters of immigration are entrusted to the federal government, not the states. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.

They also dissented two years ago when the high court struck down most of another Arizona immigration law, which had authorized police to question and arrest people who did not have proof of their citizenship. The justices said federal immigration law gives the president and his advisors leeway in deciding whether to arrest and deport people who are in the country illegally.

Obama’s legal advisors cited that opinion last month when the president expanded his temporary deportation shield to include as many as 5 million additional immigrants.

The Arizona dispute over driver’s licenses began in 2012 with Obama’s first order to defer deportation of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents as children. These so-called dreamers are also eligible to receive work permits.


Most are now young adults, and many say they need to drive to keep jobs. All states but Arizona and Nebraska had authorized immigrants with work permits to obtain driver’s licenses. But in response to Obama’s order, Brewer announced that her state would not give licenses to these “illegal people.”

Five young immigrants represented by the Arizona Dream Act Coalition sued in federal court. They argued that Obama’s federal order preempted the Republican governor’s state order, and said that singling them out for discrimination violated the constitutional principle of equal protection of the laws.

In July, the 9th Circuit agreed with the immigrants and ruled that because they were authorized to stay in the country, they were entitled to obtain driver’s licenses like other legal immigrants.

The appeals court told U.S. District Judge David Campbell in Phoenix to order the state to comply. But before he could do so, Brewer filed her emergency appeal with the high court.


Andrew Wilder, spokesman for the governor, said the next move would depend on the district judge. “Like all parties to this case, we’ll continue to watch the courts for the next step in this matter. That should come from District Judge Campbell,” he said.

Julio Zuniga, the Arizona Dream Act Coalition president, came to the United States from Mexico with his parents in 1996 when he was 6, and he still doesn’t have a driver’s license. Zuniga’s brother was pulled over and later deported in 2009 because he didn’t have a license. Zuniga had a car impounded when he was caught driving without a license.

He now uses public transportation, but admits he drives on occasion.

“It’s always a scary thing,” he said. “Whenever I see a police car I try not to give them any reason to pull me over.”


On Twitter: @DavidGSavage