Special licenses for immigrants draw protests in North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. — The driver’s license features a bold, pink stripe along the top, and further down the phrase: “NO LAWFUL STATUS.”

North Carolina proposes to issue the license to illegal immigrants who qualify for the federal Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program. The idea has raised howls of protest from immigrant and civil rights groups.

They complain that the proposed licenses would stigmatize young immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents. State legislators have expressed concerns that illegal immigrants will use the licenses to vote or obtain social services, despite the pink stripe and a pink “LIMITED TERM” endorsement.

“Why make it so discriminatory?” asked Cinthia Marroquin, 22, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico at age 15 and intends to apply for a license. “Why not just put ‘Deferred Action’ instead?”

Other young immigrants say the licenses would interfere with such prosaic chores as writing a check, ordering a beer or boarding an airplane while using the license as ID.

“Basically, they’re trying to ‘out’ us,” said Marroquin, a coordinator for N.C. Dream Team, which advocates for immigrant rights.

Driver’s licenses for immigrants have become a thorny issue in some states following approval last June of the deferred action program, which offers work permits and a two-year deferral from deportation to certain immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

In North Carolina, where Republicans took the governor’s office and the Legislature in November’s election, legislators have attempted to block or delay the licenses. On Thursday, a week after the state transportation department announced the licenses would be issued March 25, Republicans in the statehouse introduced a bill to delay them until June 15.

That would potentially give legislators time to devise a way to block or limit the licenses. One of the bill’s sponsors, state Rep. Mark Brody, said transportation officials overstepped their authority by approving the licenses. He said that is the Legislature’s prerogative.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina condemned the proposed licenses, calling them “an unnecessary marker that could lead to harassment, confusion and racial profiling.”

The Latin American Coalition in Charlotte said the license would create a “class of ‘inferior’ citizens.” More than 15,000 deferred-action applications have been approved in North Carolina.

North Carolina is the only state to mark licenses with the bearer’s legal status, said Alvaro Huerta, staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. Thirty-three states, including California, have issued licenses to deferred-action recipients or have declared them eligible for licenses, according to the center. Three states have already granted such licenses. Two states — Arizona and Nebraska — have announced that recipients of childhood-arrival deferrals are not eligible for licenses.

Huerta said of the North Carolina license: “It’s really branding people with a second-class license.”

Greer Beaty, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said the license’s markings and language were based on a state attorney general’s opinion issued last month. The Jan. 17 opinion said deferral recipients have “legal presence” and should be granted licenses. It made no mention of what language or markings should appear on the licenses.

Beaty said the license design came after weeks of consultation with federal and state agencies, as well as with advocacy groups. “This decision was made so that these individuals are able to get their driver’s licenses,” she said.

Asked whether the licenses might be revised, Beaty replied, “This is the license they will receive.”

Marroquin, of the N.C. Dream Team, said activists planned to protest the license. “You’ll definitely be hearing from us,” she said.