Arizona’s limits on immigrant driver’s licenses upheld

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said: "This fight has never been about the 'dreamers.' As governor, I have taken an oath to uphold the laws of Arizona.'
(Ross Franklin / Associated Press)

TUCSON — Young people granted immigration relief and work permits under a new Obama administration program still won’t be able to obtain driver’s licenses in Arizona, a federal judge has ruled.

Although the decision is a win for Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who issued the executive order denying driver’s licenses to this particular group, it’s just the first battle in a case that will probably be argued on constitutional grounds.

U.S. District Judge David G. Campbell on Thursday turned down a request for a preliminary injunction blocking Brewer’s order but stated that the plaintiffs — a contingent of immigrant rights groups — would probably prevail on their claim that the governor’s order violates guarantees of equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.


Arizona lets some immigrants with work permits obtain driver’s licenses, the plaintiffs note, while denying the same benefits to other immigrants protected by President Obama’s program.

Campbell dismissed a separate argument by the plaintiffs that the state’s policy was preempted by federal law. Brewer applauded that decision.

“This portion of the ruling is not only a victory for the state of Arizona, it is a victory for states’ rights, the rule of law and the bedrock principles that guide our nation’s legislative process and the division of power between the federal government and states,” Brewer said.

At issue is how states respond to Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects some youths who are in the country illegally from deportation. In addition, it authorizes them to live and work in the United States for two years.

Most states have allowed youths granted deferred deportation to apply for a driver’s license. In August, however, Brewer issued her executive order to ban such licenses.

Brewer’s order states that Obama’s executive order does not grant the youths “any lawful or authorized status and does not entitle them to any additional public benefit.”

Opponents — the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and five immigrants — sued in November, asking a judge to issue an injunction and challenging Brewer’s order as unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union called Campbell’s decision an important ruling, stating that it would continue to fight.

“At a time when the majority of Americans support fair and inclusive immigration policies, Arizona continues to stand out as an outlier by treating these young, hard-working immigrants differently because of who they are. We are confident that in the end, the courts will side with dreamers and uphold equality,” said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona.

“Dreamers” is a term popularly used to refer to people who were brought illegally to the U.S. at a young age.

An estimated 80,000 youths in Arizona, and 1.76 million nationwide, are covered by Obama’s program, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration think tank based in Washington.

As of end of March, the federal government had accepted 472,004 requests for the deferred action program. Of those applications, 268,361 were approved and 1,377 denied. The rest are still under review.

Immigrant rights groups argue that whereas Obama’s program has been a lifeline for many immigrant youths, Arizona’s policy is an obstacle for this particular group to get on with their lives — particularly driving to work — and contribute to society.

Brewer, who once called the program “backdoor amnesty,” said Thursday that she was not singling out a group of people with her order. “This fight has never been about the ‘dreamers.’ As governor, I have taken an oath to uphold the laws of Arizona,” she said.

In Washington, an immigration bill that would provide legal status to immigrants living in the country without permission is working its way through the Senate. On the day of Campbell’s ruling, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers said it had reached a tentative consensus on an immigration overhaul bill.

It’s unclear, however, how such legislation, if signed into law, would affect the dispute over driver’s licenses in Arizona.