Court blocks Arizona on immigrant driver’s licenses; Dreamers rejoice

An appeals court has overturned Arizona's ban against young immigrants obtaining drivers licenses.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

In a sharply worded opinion, a federal appellate panel struck down an Arizona policy that prohibits young immigrants known as Dreamers from getting driver’s licenses.

The case has been closely watched since it pits the Obama administration’s effort to help the Dreamers, part of the immigrant-rights movement seeking federal action on a range of issues. On the other side is Arizona, one of the states that has been most vocal in opposing the national effort.

In its unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Arizona’s effort to block the driver’s licenses violated equal protection requirements of the U.S. Constitution and that the Dreamers are likely to suffer irreparable harm by the state policy. State officials said they are reviewing the ruling, but pledged to continue the legal fight against issuing licenses.


Those in the Dreamer movement were ecstatic. “We’re very happy, an important and terrific decision,” Dan Pochoda, the legal director for the ACLU of Arizona, told the Los Angeles Times. “The plaintiffs were significantly harmed by this ugly, vindictive policy.”

On the surface, the case was about who is allowed to apply for a license to drive a vehicle in Arizona, a crucial privilege since 87% of the state’s workforce commutes by car, according to the court papers. However, the heart of the case is about immigration policy and who has the authority to decide what is legal and what is not, a highly charged political question in a border state like Arizona with its conservative Republican administration that has fought before with President Obama.

In June 2012, the Obama administration issued a memorandum outlining what is known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA gave immigrants who were brought to the United States before they were 16 some legal status so they are not deported, though far less than a path to citizenship than some in the immigrant-rights community had sought.

The group of children are known as Dreamers. There were a number of other requirements to participate in the DACA program, such as a high school diploma or the equivalent or an honorable discharge from the U.S. armed forces. To be eligible, the individuals could not be a threat to public safety or be convicted of a significant misdemeanor or any felony. They were also required to seek employment documents.

On Aug. 15, 2012, the same day that the DACA rules went into effect, Gov. Jan Brewer issued an executive order prohibiting Arizona agencies from issuing any form of “state identification, including a driver’s license” to DACA recipients who she said “are here illegally and unlawfully in the state of Arizona,” according to the court’s opinion, which quoted Brewer. “The Obama amnesty plan doesn’t make them legally here,” she said.

In its ruling, the appellate panel rejected any claim between Arizona’s policy in rejecting the licenses and “a legitimate state interest... Arizona assumes for itself the federal prerogative of classifying noncitizens – despite the fact that ‘[t]he states enjoy no power with respect to the classification of aliens.’”


The panel said the state acted with animosity.

“The record does suggest one additional reason for Defendants’ policy, but that reason does not establish that Defendants’ classification of DACA recipients is rationally related to a legitimate state interest,” according to the decision. “Defendants’ policy appears intended to express animus toward DACA recipients themselves, in part because of the federal government’s policy toward them. Such animus, however, is not a legitimate state interest.”

Dreamers noted the political battle while praising the court ruling.

“Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio have made it their mission to target undocumented immigrants with harsh charges solely to elevate their politics at the cost of our communities. Once again, Dreamers won and now we are ready to fight for our parents to have the same rights as us,” Erika Andiola from the Dream Action Coalition said in a statement.

Brewer said in a statement that she was “analyzing options for appealing the misguided court decision.”

“It is outrageous, though not entirely surprising, that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has once again dealt a blow to Arizona’s ability to enforce its laws,” Brewer said. “With today’s decision, a three judge appellate panel, appointed by Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama, disregarded judicial precedent and procedure. This continues us down a dangerous path in which the courts and the President—not Congress—make our nation’s laws.”

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