The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered Arizona to stop denying “dreamers” driver’s licenses while the legal case continues.

Among the issues the three-judge panel cited Monday was that the policy could cause “irreparable harm” to the youths and that it wasn’t being applied evenly among groups in similar situations. Young adults whose parents brought them to the United States illegally may qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly called DACA, which lets them stay in this country with a two-year work permit that can be renewed.

“Defendants’ policy appears to be intended to express animus toward DACA recipients themselves, in part because of the federal government’s policy toward them,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in the unanimous decision. “Such animus, however, is not a legitimate state interest.”

Gov. Jan Brewer said in a written statement that she was analyzing her options for appealing what she called a misguided court decision and that Arizona would continue to fight for the rule of law.

“It is outrageous, though not entirely surprising, that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has once again dealt a blow to Arizona’s ability to enforce its laws,” she said. “This continues us down a dangerous path in which the courts and the president — not Congress — make our nation’s laws.”

It is not clear how soon beneficiaries could apply for a driver’s license. Timothy Tait, assistant communication director for the Arizona Department of Transportation, said in an email Monday that the ruling was under review.

Almost 20,000 immigrants have received deferred action in Arizona, out of more than 550,000 nationwide.

DACA recipients were able to apply for a driver’s license in most states, with the exceptions of Arizona and Nebraska.

The same day the Obama administration announced the program on Aug. 15, 2012, Brewer issued an executive order explicitly making DACA beneficiaries ineligible for a state driver’s license or ID.

A group of lawyers and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, fought back with a lawsuit arguing that the governor’s executive order is pre-empted by federal law and violates the Equal Protection Clause because those approved for deferred action under other categories could still apply for driver’s licenses.

The plaintiffs — the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and five individuals — tried to get the executive order delayed while the suit was ongoing, but a district judge denied the injunction, saying they hadn’t shown a likelihood of irreparable harm.

The group appealed and won.

“As a practical matter, the ability to drive may be a virtual necessity for people who want to work in Arizona,” Judge Pregerson wrote.

“The irreparable nature of plaintiff’s injury is heightened by plaintiff’s young age and socioeconomic position,” he said. “Setbacks early in their careers are likely to haunt plaintiffs for the rest of their lives.”

More than 87 percent of Arizona’s workforce commutes by car, while only about 2 percent commute to work using public transportation.

Pregerson said the plaintiffs had shown they were likely to succeed on the equal-protection claim.

While the appeal was pending, the state revised its policy once again to exclude other groups, but allowed people who have applied for adjustment of status and cancellation of removal to continue to use their work permits as proof they are authorized to be in the country for their driver’s license application. The two groups account for more than 66 percent of applicants who obtained Arizona driver’s licenses using work permits during the past seven years, the court found.

Dan Pachoda, an attorney for the ACLU, said the group was pleased with the decision and called it a “most-deserved smack-down of Governor Brewer for unnecessary, vindictive actions.”

Although the case is ongoing, Pachoda said, given the direct orders and strong wording of the ruling, he doesn’t expect the final outcome will be much different.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or 573-4210.