State fights over driver’s licenses hand the anti-immigrant movement multiple defeats

On Friday, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) gave the anti-immigrant movement bad news: immigrant youth who have received deferred action cannot be discriminated against so easily. The announcement should embolden grassroots immigrant rights activists, who over the past few weeks have defeated multiple attempts to deny driver’s licenses to immigrant youth who were recently granted deferred action by the federal government.

USCIS issued a new guidance memo on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, clarifying a distinction between having an immigration status and “lawful presence”—the latter was given to hundreds of thousands of immigrant youth under the DACA program. Despite being lawfully present, four states (Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska) decided to make life difficult for these young people by denying them licenses. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) has pressured states to deny young people driver’s licenses, calling them “feeder documents” even though they are legally present. Arizona and Michigan have both ended up in court over their decisions, both times with DACA recipients acting as plaintiffs (see Arizona Dream Act Coalition, et al v. Brewer and One Michigan v. Ruth Johnson). Arizona Governor Jan Brewer symbolically began denying driver’s licenses on August 15, the day the DACA program went into effect.

By comparison, 28 states have said the opposite, affirming the eligibility of these young people to drive. After four months of deliberation, Oregon officials decided last week to issue driver’s licenses to immigrant youth who have received deferred action. The governor has also been pressured from Oregon Dream Activist and allies to grant driver’s licenses to all undocumented immigrants, which Illinois also did earlier this month.

Ahead of the Friday announcement, North Carolina weighed in on the opposite end of most of the country. Two weeks ago, the state Department of Motor Vehicles began denying licenses to DACA recipients, only to get rebuked by the state attorney general’s office on Thursday of last week. In one of his first public appearances as Lieutenant Governor, Dan Forest shot back, criticizing the office’s decision on licenses and the DACA program overall. The NC DREAM Team has launched a petition admonishing Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata and thanking the attorney general (available here).

Forest is the son of former Representative Sue Myrick, a virulently anti-immigrant politician who was part of the Immigration Reform Caucus founded by Tom Tancredo and a contributor to the white nationalist journal, The Social Contract. Sec. Tony Tata has a spotty history with discrimination in his own right, known most widely for overseeing the re-segregation of the Wake County school system. The DMV claimed that it was waiting for clarification from the attorney general on whether or not to return to issuing licenses, but it has not revised its policy at the time of publication.

While North Carolina moves one way, the rest of the country moved another. Activists there are fighting—and winning—as are their counterparts nationwide. Once these states move past their prejudices against immigrant youth, let’s work on opening access to driver’s licenses for all immigrants.