PHOENIX -- Oral arguments were held in federal court on Thursday on the question of whether Arizona can deny driver’s licenses to young immigrants who qualify for an Obama administration program.
The courtroom in downtown Phoenix was packed with young people and immigrant supporters.
The five named plaintiffs in the case were brought to the country illegally as children and now qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA.
They received work permits and a temporary reprieve from deportation, and are considered to be legally present in the country by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which administers the program.
Most states are issuing licenses to this population. But Arizona doesn’t recognize DACA recipients as legal immigrants and argues they can’t qualify for driver’s licenses.
While Arizona’s Department of Transportation used to accept all federal work permits as a qualifying document to get a license, following an executive order from Governor Jan Brewer in August, the agency does not accept work permits issued to DACA recipients.
One of the attorneys challenging the executive order on behalf of the plaintiffs, Jennifer Chang Newell of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the state’s ban is discriminatory because other immigrants in a similar position have received Arizona licenses in the past.
Newell said there are many categories of immigrants who have received deferred action from the federal government, and then Arizona driver’s licenses, such as surviving spouses of deceased U.S. citizens, and immigrants allowed to stay in the country to receive medical care.
“The judge specifically asked [the state], you recognize that other deferred action are authorized to be present, what is the basis for treating DACA recipients differently?” Newell said after the hearing. “And there is no basis.”
But Brewer's spokesman Matt Benson justified the distinction.
“The Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals, it was never granted legal status through Congress,” Benson said. “It is not enshrined in federal law. That is what sets this population apart from the other deferred action recipients within the state of Arizona, including those that have previously received driver’s licenses.”
It is a distinction that Newell disagrees with. She argues Arizona cannot reject the federal government's determination of which immigrants are authorized to be in the country.
Plaintiffs are asking U.S. Federal Judge David Campbell to block the state's policy and the state is asking Campbell to dismiss the suit.
A ruling is expected in the coming weeks.