As states weigh licenses for young illegal immigrants, N.C. switches its position

Franco Ordonez

After first indicating it would grant driver’s licenses to young illegal immigrants who have received two-year deferrals from deportation, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles now says it will not allow them to drive until the agency receives a legal opinion that requires it to do otherwise.

North Carolina joins Arizona, Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska in denying driver’s licenses to deferred action recipients, while other states such as California, Texas and Florida are allowing the licenses. The patchwork pattern shows how states continue to grapple with how to respond to federal policy on immigration.

The decision, which could affect 18,000 North Carolina immigrants, has sent a wave of anxiety across the Tar Heel state.

Cinthia Marroquin, 22, who lives in North Raleigh, applied for deferred action in October and expects to receive her work permit by the end of the month. Her first stop after getting her Social Security Card was the DMV – until now.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “Do I even get a job? Am I going to make it? What am I going to do? You can’t really get a job, basically.”

The Obama administration announced plans in June to prevent the deportations of an estimated 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. More than 350,000 already have applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which blocks deportation and grants a two-year work permit to undocumented youths who came to the United States before they turned 16, are not older than 30, and are high school graduates, attending college or have served in the military.

The question of allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses has long been source of contention across the states.

Proponents of allowing the licenses charge that it’s better to have licensed drivers on the road and that illegal immigrants will drive regardless of whether they have a license in order to work. Critics, however, argue that granting driver’s licenses is another incentive for higher illegal immigration.

Many states, including North Carolina, have passed laws that prevent illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.

Groups that promote greater immigration enforcement applauded the North Carolina DMV’s decision not to provide driver’s licenses to people here illegally. Ron Woodard, president of N.C. Listen, said President Barack Obama, by allowing the deferrals, unconstitutionally granted one group of illegal immigrant amnesty.

He said members of his group contacted legislators and leaders of the Division of Motor Vehicles, encouraging them not to grant licenses to those who received the deferrals.

“Just because our president has done something unlawful doesn’t mean our state should also do something unlawful,” he said.

But perspectives may be changing. Two-thirds of voters in the Nov. 6 election said undocumented immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status, according to exit polls. Only about one in three said they should be deported.

This week, Illinois lawmakers approved a new measure that would allow all undocumented immigrants to get temporary driver’s licenses. Lawmakers in Nevada also have raised the possibility of allowing illegal immigrants to drive.

In Florida and California, officials have determined that as long as immigrants present the work permits, they can obtain driver’s licenses.

"We don’t make any distinction, because we recognize the work authorization card that they received from (the deferred deportation process),” said Armando Botello, spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles said this summer that it would grant driver’s licenses to those who received deferred action. But Marge Howell, a spokeswoman for the state DMV, said this week that the agency decided to deny those licenses and seek a legal opinion from state Attorney General Roy Cooper on how the program conforms with state law.

In a Sept. 10 letter to Cooper, then-Commissioner Michael Robertson sought clarification on whether individuals granted an employment authorization card with a special code indicating they’ve received deferred action constitutes the bearer’s “legal presence” in the United States.

“No such licenses will be issued unless we receive written guidance from your office informing us that North Carolina law does, in fact, require them to be issued,” Robertson wrote.

While each state sets its own driver’s license policy, most allow noncitizens who hold work permits or who are granted deferred action to apply for driver’s licenses, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

The American Civil Liberties Union is investigating the North Carolina cases. It already has filed lawsuits in Michigan and Arizona after state leaders made policy decisions to deny driver’s licenses to those allowed to work and stay in the country under the federal deferral program.

People who received deferred action for other humanitarian reasons, such as victims of domestic violence, asylum cases and victims of hurricanes, have been able to get driver’s licenses in North Carolina and other states, said Raul Pinto, staff attorney with the ACLU in North Carolina.

“States do have the right to control who they license,” Pinto said. “But here it’s going to the crux of being treated equally. And the federal government has determined this group can work in the United States and obtain Social Security numbers. And now they’re being treated differently by their state governments.”

Groups such as the N.C. Dream Team in Raleigh and the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte have been answering calls from concerned community members who have received or are awaiting their deferral documents. Lacey Williams, youth program director at the Latin American Coalition, sees denying licenses as discrimination.

“I don’t know who they think it will benefit to have this class of people who can now work but cannot drive. It just doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

Some deferred action recipients have somehow fallen through the cracks and have received their driver’s licenses. Eloy Tupayachi, an editor for Que Pasa, a Spanish-language newspaper in Raleigh who first reported that the DMV was denying licenses, said he has spoken with at least half a dozen undocumented students who have received their license.

Days after being accepted into the deferred action program, Marco Valencia, 20, of East Charlotte, visited the Albemarle DMV office to get his driver’s license. He handed them his Social Security card and work permit.

“I’m really blessed,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to get my job without the license. They require that I be able to drive.”

Members of the N.C. Dream Team are encouraging undocumented youth to try and get a driver’s license. They’re compiling a list of DMV branches that are granting licenses and others that are not, said Jose Rico, one of the N.C. Dream Team’s founding members.

Howell, of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, said she couldn’t explain why some immigrants got their licenses, but she said immigrants who are part of the deferral program receive special employment authorization cards with coding that signifies the program. Those cards are being reviewed at the branch, but also during the verification process when a temporary license is provided.

“If during the verification process,” she said, “a driver’s license is found issued in error, we will not mail it.”

By Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Newspapers