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Appeals court: Give driver's licenses to deferred action recipients

The 9th Circuit Court on Monday ordered that Arizona provide driver's licenses to recipients of deferred action from deportation — those commonly known as "Dreamers." Saying that the state's policy appears to be motivated by animosity to the young immigrants and is likely unconstitutional, the court ordered an injunction blocking Gov. Jan Brewer's 2012 executive order.

"We discern no rational relationship between Defendants’ policy and a legitimate state interest," wrote Judge Harry Pregerson for a three-judge panel.

The unanimous 40-page decision ordered the case be sent back to a lower court, where U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell had denied an injunction in a suit filed on behalf of those in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The appeal court's remand directed Campbell to order the state Department of Transportation to provide licensees to DACA recipients, saying that the plantiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their case in a full trial.

The ruling was welcomed by the American Civil Liberities Union and the plaintiffs in the case.

"Today’s decision will remove a tremendous burden that I—along with thousands of other Arizonans—face on a daily basis," said one of those who filed suit to block the policy, Carla Chavarria, a member of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition. "By allowing us to apply for the licenses we need to drive to school and work, we’ll finally be able to contribute more fully to the communities we love."

While Brewer did not immediately respond to the ruling, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred DuVal was quick to issue a statement, saying he would rescind the order if he were elected in November.

"Gov. Brewer’s executive order barring DREAMers from receiving driver’s licenses is callous; it hurts families and local businesses, and it makes our streets less safe," he said in a press release. "Arizona needs a governor who will work to expand opportunity for all Arizonans. Unfortunately, every other candidate for governor has said they would continue this illegal policy."

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A statement released later in the morning by Brewer blasted the decision, and the Obama administration's DACA program, which the governor called a "lawless directive."

"This policy choice is not federal law authorizing an illegal alien's presence in the country – it simply is a choice by the executive branch not to enforce deportation proceedings as required under existing federal statute," Brewer said.

Arizona law bars issuing a license to anyone whose presence is not "authorized under federal law."

Until August 2012, the state Department of Transportation listed federal employment authorization documents as proving such an authorized presence.

On Aug. 15, 2012, Brewer issued an executive order that meant state officials could not accept work papers from DACA deferred action recipients, who are immigrants who were brought here illegally as children who are allowed to stay in the United States for renewable two-year terms without fear of being deported.

Immigrants covered under the program are required to apply for work authorization documentation, which can be used to apply for a driver’s license in Arizona. But Brewer’s order stopped that.

After a suit was filed, the state again changed its policies, refusing to issue licenses to recipients of some other forms of deferred action, including crime victims and domestic violence survivors. Officials said that meant the policy did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as claimed in the suit.

"We hold that Plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreparable harm unless Defendants’ policy is enjoined," the appeals judge wrote. The state policy is a major barrier to employment for people who are required to apply for work permits under DACA, the court said. Further, the policy means the state impermissably "assumes for itself the federal prerogative of classifying noncitizens."

Because Arizona issues licenses to some who fall under other types of deferred action programs, the policy is an equal protection violation, the court ruled.

"In both cases, the federal government has allowed noncitizens to remain in the United States, has pledged not to remove them during the designated period, and has authorized them to work in this courtry," the judge wrote.

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Brewer's policy "appears intended to express animus toward DACA recipients themselves, in part because of the federal government's policy toward them. Such animus, however, is not a legitimate state interest," the court said.

The governor's response to the ruling echoed that phrasing.

"Lawless decrees by the president demonstrate animus to Congress, states and the Constitution. It is outrageous, though not entirely surprising, that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has once again dealt a blow to Arizona's ability to enforce its laws," Brewer said. "The ruling is especially disturbing given the current influx of illegal aliens, a crisis President Obama created and escalated. I am analyzing options for appealing the misguided court decision."

Democratic legislators and Latino activists hailed the ruling.

State Rep. Martin Quezada called Brewer's executive order denying licenses "extremist," and "simply political grandstanding."

"Deferred action recipients who received work permits are authorized to be in this country. There is no legitimate reason to treat them differently," the Phoenix lawmaker said in a press release. "I am sure that there will be additional court proceedings. I am equally sure that the ‘dreamers’ will prevail."

The court's ruling is a "huge victory for the young immigrants who want nothing more than to make meaningful contributions to communities in their home state of Arizona," said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. "Gov. Brewer chose to play politics with the hopes and dreams of these young people by denying them licenses and we’re extremely happy the court saw through this and found there was no rational reason to single them out."

Victor Viramontes, national senior counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, welcomed the decision.

“The 9th Circuit has told them (Arizona) that they need to follow the law and … stop discriminating against DACA recipients,” said Viramontes, who argued the case for the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and five immigrants who challenged the policy.

The suit was brought on behalf of deferred action recipients by the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center, and MALDEF.

The plaintiffs include five DACA recipients who got work papers but who said, according to court documents, that the executive order effectively kept them from working, since they have no way to get to their jobs without a car.

“This is an important victory because in Arizona driving is essential for living your daily life,” Viramontes said.

“It’s how you go to school. It’s how you go to work. It’s how you visit your family members, and the governor senselessly tried to deny driver’s licenses to DACA recipients,” he said.

Carmen Cormejo, an adviser to the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, said it is an important decision because “DREAMers need to drive. They need to become completely integrated into our communities and the state.”

U.S. District Court Judge Campbell had ruled that the policy discriminated against DACA recipients “for no rational reason,” but that the order could take effect because plaintiffs were not likely to suffer “irreparable harm” from it.

The appeals panel disagreed, saying the plaintiffs would be harmed if the policy was not blocked.

Brewer said she is looking at options for an appeal.

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“This continues us down a dangerous path in which the courts and the president – not Congress – make our nation’s laws,” Brewer’s statement said.

But Viramontes said the state needs to “move on” from this issue.

“It’s time for Arizona to move on from its years-long policy now of being at war with immigrants,” he said. “I think they need to turn the page.”

Cronkite News Service reporter Aubree Abril contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.


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Deferred action criteria

While those who receive deferred action status are commonly referred to as "Dreamers," the 2012 program is different than the proposed DREAM Act.

To be eligible for DACA, immigrants must have come to the United States before the age of sixteen and have been under thirty-one years old as of June 15, 2012; they must have been living in the United States when DACA was announced and have continuously resided in the United States for at least the previous five years; and they must have graduated from high school, or obtained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces or the Coast Guard, or be currently enrolled in school. Additionally, they must not pose any threat to public safety: anyone who has been convicted of multiple misdemeanors, a single significant misdemeanor, or any felony offense is ineligible for DACA.