PHOENIX — An Arizona policy that prevents certain young immigrants from getting state driver's licenses will stay in effect for now. In a Thursday ruling, a federal judge declined to temporarily block the policy, but also suggested one of the legal arguments challenging it is likely to succeed.
The plaintiffs in the suit are young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, and qualified for an Obama administration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Under the program, these immigrants were granted work permits.
While Arizona accepts work permits as a qualifying document to get a driver's license and allows other categories of immigrants granted deferred action to gain licenses this way, Gov. Jan Brewer's office directed the Department of Transportation to bar DACA recipients from gaining licenses.
So last year, DACA recipients challenged the Arizona policy in federal court.
The Governor's office argued that the distinction made sense, because a license would enable DACA recipients to access benefits they are not entitled to, and that DACA recipients should not get licenses because they may ultimately have to leave the country.
Federal District Judge David Campbell ruled Thursday the license ban could stay in effect while the case is being litigated.
That news was welcomed by Brewer.
“This portion of the ruling is not only a victory for the State of Arizona," Brewer said in a statement. "It is a victory for states’ rights, the rule of law and the bedrock principles that guide our nation’s legislative process and the division of power between the federal government and states."
Dulce Matuz, the director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, which is a plaintiff in the case, expressed disappointment that the judge had denied plaintiffs' request for an injunction against the state policy.
“To be successful, we need driver's licenses," said Matuz in a statement. "They have become a necessity in life."
But Campbell also wrote in his opinion there was merit to one of the plaintiffs' legal arguments challenging the ban — that it is unfair for Arizona to grant some deferred action recipients with work permits the ability to get a license, but deny DACA recipients with work permits.
"The Court is not saying that the Constitution requires the State of Arizona to grant driver’s licenses to all noncitizens or to all individuals on deferred action status," Campbell wrote in his ruling. "But if the State chooses to confer licenses to some individuals with deferred action status, it may not deny it to others without a rational basis for the distinction."
Furthermore, the judge found the basis for Brewer's policy was that she disagreed with the Obama administration's DACA program.
"The Governor strongly criticized the program as 'backdoor amnesty' and political 'pandering,'" wrote Campbell in his opinion. "[A]nd her comments related to the Executive Order show that she disagreed with the federal government’s conclusion that DACA recipients are now authorized by federal law to be present in the country, referring to them as 'illegal people.'"
Such a finding could be consistent with plaintiffs' arguments that there was discriminatory intent behind the license ban.
The judge wrote he would schedule a hearing for both sides to debate the remaining portions of the case.
For more Fronteras Desk news, visit fronterasdesk.org.