Arizona Immigrants in Obama Program Won’t Get Licenses

Young immigrants authorized to work in the U.S. under a new federal program won’t be able to get driver’s licenses in Arizona.

Republican Governor Jan Brewer issued an executive order saying state law bars benefits or state-issued identification for those in the country illegally -- including those who qualify for the deferred-enforcement program announced by President Barack Obama in June, which kicked off yesterday. She directed agencies to block access for an estimated 80,000 immigrants in Arizona who may qualify.

Brewer’s order came as thousands of young illegal immigrants lined up around the U.S. seeking information about work permits and a possible two-year deferment of deportation, including 11,000 who came to Navy Pier in Chicago to meet with volunteer lawyers, the Chicago Tribune reported. The program is open to those who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country at least five years and who graduate from high school or serve in the military, among other criteria.

The policy may benefit as many as 1.7 million people age 30 and under, according to estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center. The report said that 950,000 people would be eligible immediately and another 770,000 people in the future as they meet the criteria set by the president.

Defend Arizona

Obama’s policy bypassed Congress, where legislation known as the Dream Act designed to give a path to legal status for younger illegal immigrants has been stalled. It also pushed the issue back into Obama’s campaign with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who has opposed the measure. Romney has said he would “put in place my own long-term solution.”

In her executive order, Brewer said federal documents issued under the new program won’t prove lawful status and permitting state-issued identification or benefits to recipients would “have significant and lasting impacts on the Arizona budget.”

The governor’s spokesman, Matthew Benson, said Brewer is seeking to defend her state.

“The governor can’t undo what the president has done, but she can take a stand for state law,” Benson said. “By no definition are these individuals lawfully present or lawfully authorized to be in the United States. All they have received is a deferral from being prosecuted or deported.”

Into Court

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona disagrees with the governor, said Executive Director Alessandra Soler. State law allows driver’s licenses for others authorized by the federal government to be in the U.S., including people here on political asylum, she said.

“The definitive action on this will be decided in a courtroom,” Senate Democratic Leader David Schapira said at a press briefing.

In other states, officials are evaluating whether young people admitted under the program qualify for driver’s licenses or identification.

Michigan will accept the federal documentation, said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for the secretary of state. California will treat those in the new program as “temporary legal residents” and issue licenses, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Driver’s licenses aren’t the only issue. In Florida, students in the program will pay out-of-state tuition, Florida State University System spokeswoman Diane McCain said. Benson, Brewer’s spokesman, said Arizona law prohibits in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, including those in this program.

Waiting to Drive

At Arizona’s Capitol, a few dozen young immigrants and supporters today held signs such as “Brewer, why the hate?”

Carla Chavarria, a 19-year-old illegal immigrant from Scottsdale, remembers feeling left out in high school when friends started getting driver’s licenses. She was hoping to get one if she is admitted to the new program.

“They don’t let us have a victory,” said Chavarria, who runs an advertising and graphics design business and was brought to the country at age 7. She said that Brewer was “like a bully -- you got up from the playground and I am going to push you down again.”

The program’s inception has created a flurry of action in immigrant communities.

Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, director of outreach and program evaluation at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, a Philadelphia-based organization, said immigrant groups have been holding information sessions for two months.

“There’s a lot of trepidation,” she said. People wonder, “How do I get this exactly right so I don’t lose my once in a lifetime chance?”

Answering Questions

In Florida, a two-hour phone bank answering questions yesterday received about 500 calls, said Natalia Jaramillo, spokeswoman for Miami-based Florida Immigration Coalition.

The Ohio chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association is setting up a free clinic in Cleveland on Aug. 18, said David Leopold, an immigration attorney.

“People are saying, ‘I can stand up and be somebody in this society now,’” Leopold said in a telephone interview. “It’s just wonderful to see such hope.”

Eduardo Resendez said he was 16 when he, his mother and younger sister left their home in Mexico City, crossed the Texas border and made their way to the Bronx in New York City, where his father was already living. Resendez, now 22, is on a path to get working papers, he said in a telephone interview today.

Already in the midst of getting a bachelor’s degree in music from the City University of New York, being allowed to work legally would mean fulfilling his dream of being a high-school music teacher.

“Before this, I knew I wouldn’t be able to teach in the U.S., so my plan was to go back to Mexico when I graduated,” Resendez said. “Now, that plan has changed. I’ll be able to stay with my family. That’s one of the greatest things that will happen.”

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