Arizona’s denial of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants currently authorized by the federal government to remain and work in the United States has always been a political power play. It’s a way for Gov. Jan Brewer to once again wave a finger in President Obama’s face and one-up his order with a countermand of her own.
As reported in the Star, that 2012 decision has now come under the scrutiny of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel sharply questioned the policy and its shaky legal underpinnings.
The court should grant an injunction against Brewer’s directive, allowing the close to 17,000 beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in the state the opportunity to enjoy the benefits and fulfill the obligations of driving in Arizona.
The legal battle over this matter, which has dragged on to the benefit of no one, shows the governor irrationally intent on hurting a group of people — in this case, immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, many of whom grew up in Arizona and are established members of the community.
The injunction was originally denied by U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell because he believed that being denied a driver’s license did not rise to the level of irreparable harm . The young men and women affected were still driving to work even though they had no license, after all.
Regardless of that questionable reasoning, Campbell did allow that plaintiffs had a strong case arguing a violation of equal protection under the law, since Brewer had specifically targeted the beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals while allowing other immigrants who fell under the deferred action classification access to driver’s licenses.
Rather than give up the fight, the governor ordered the Arizona Department of Transportation to stop issuing driver’s licenses to deferred action beneficiaries across the board, including to victims of domestic violence and asylum seekers.
Brewer’s main argument is that a 1996 state law says licenses are only available to those who are “authorized by federal law” to be in the country. The president’s order to the Department of Homeland Security not to deport childhood arrivals and to allow them to work does not mean they are “authorized.”
All parties agree that immigrants who fall under deferred action have no legal status, but they are authorized by the federal government to remain in the country and work. So the state’s argument comes down to semantics.
More importantly, 9 out of 10 people in Arizona drive to work and many jobs require employees to have a driver’s license. As pointed out by the judges, if the federal government authorizes work permits for this group, the state cannot functionally abridge that right by denying them legal access.
There is also no clear benefit to denying these immigrants driver’s licenses. If they drive to work — and given the reality in the state, they do — they not only put themselves at risk of being prosecuted for doing so illegally, they also put every other driver at risk by not having been properly tested or carrying insurance.
The question posed by the appellate judges to Tim Berg, the governor’s lawyer, boils it all down: What is the purpose? Why is Brewer pursuing this so adamantly? If it’s nothing but empty political posturing, it is immoral. If it’s anything other than pointless bluster, it is illegal.
Deferred action has opened up many new opportunities for this group of young immigrants, but with immigration reform looking less and less likely, their future remains uncertain. They should at least be able to drive to work in peace.