Arizona is not issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants protected by
President Obama’s ‘deferred action’ program. But on this illegal
immigration issue, most states are going the other way.
By Lourdes Medrano
Arizona is still targeting illegal immigration, but
this time, almost no states are following.
Not long after President Obama decided in 2012 to “defer action” on
the deportation of many young undocumented immigrants — allowing them
to stay in the country legally for two years — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer
(R) fired back. She announced that none of the people protected by Mr.
Obama’s decision would be eligible for driver’s licenses in her state.
On Sept. 17, she doubled down on that decision, saying that those
granted “deferred action” for other reasons — such as domestic
violence and human trafficking — would also be refused driver’s
licenses, though they had been granted them in the past.
Two years ago, when Arizona passed a “show me your papers” law that
allowed law-enforcement to inquire about a resident’s immigration
status during routine traffic stops, a number of states followed suit.
But the state stands mostly alone in making driver’s licenses the next
frontier in the fight against illegal immigration.
Only Nebraska has joined Arizona in withholding driver’s licenses from
candidates eligible for the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for
Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Others such as Michigan and North
Carolina have considered similar ideas, but a larger number of states
are actually going in the opposite direction: opening driver’s
licenses for more residents regardless of legal status.
The willingness of states to increasingly accommodate drivers who lack
legal status portends a changing political climate, says Audrey
Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan
Young men and women who were brought into the country as minors have
generated strong support, and “the last presidential election put a
lot of pressure on the Republican Party to get serious about changing
the immigration policy of the country,” she adds.
Arizona’s latest effort to keep unauthorized immigrants from obtaining
a driver’s license surfaced in federal court documents as part of a
lawsuit against Governor Brewer. The lawsuit alleges that her driver’s
license stance is discriminatory. Brewer argues that the state, not
the federal government, has the authority to determine who gets a
Mr. Obama’s deferred action program, which took effect in August 2012,
grants eligible immigrants a work permit. Through July 2013, more than
half a million people under age 31 who came to the United States
before they turned 16 have applied for deferred action, according to
Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency has approved 430,236
The federal program prompted many states to review their rules for
issuing driver’s licenses. This year, lawmakers in some 25 states took
up the subject in the context of immigration, according to the
National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Before 2013, immigrants could obtain driver’s licenses or special
driving certificate only in New Mexico, Washington, and Utah
regardless of legal status, says Ann Morse, a spokeswoman for the
But earlier this month, California passed legislation that allows
those in the country illegally to get a driver’s license. The state is
home to the largest number of immigrants in the country — including
more than 2.6 million who lack legal status, according to the
University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant
Illinois, Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon, Maryland, Nevada, and Vermont
also have created laws expanding access to licenses or driving
certificates irrespective of legal status. Those laws will take effect
between November and January 2015.
Meanwhile, a National Immigration Law Center review in June concluded
that some 45 states issue licenses to DACA recipients.
That’s not to say all states were quick to embrace the idea of
granting driver’s licenses to the young immigrants. In the midst of a
lawsuit, Michigan rescinded its decision to not issue licenses, and as
criticism mounted, North Carolina abandoned a plan to mark the
licenses with pink stripes, though a “no lawful status” designation
In Arizona, a campaign by Citizens for a Better Arizona is underway to
try to change the governor’s stance.