States Can't Deny Immigrants Driver's Licenses

In 2012, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer declared that those protected by President Barack Obama’s then-newly created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program were not eligible for driver’s licenses in the state. Brewer contended that DACA protection did not entitle Dreamers to drive, but in May 2013, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against the law, pointing out that it treated immigrant communities differently, resulting in unequal protections. Later that year, Arizona agreed that it would deny driver’s licenses to everyone with a deportation deferral, but the court ruled against that solution as well.

In 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Arizona’s appeal, and on Monday the Supreme Court declined to hear Arizona’s appeal.

“Arizona’s inexplicable attempt to deny driver’s licenses to Dreamers, pursued by two governors for years, has now failed at every level of the federal judiciary,” said ACLU attorney Jennifer Chang Newell. The ACLU sued Arizona on behalf of a number of DACA recipients who were denied driver’s licenses.

Arizona framed the issue as a states’ rights one, and contended that because Obama created DACA through governmental memo, it didn’t supersede state law on driver’s licenses. "Our case has always been about more than just driver’s licenses," said Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich. “It’s about the separation of powers and whether the president, any president, can unilaterally act and bypass Congress to create new laws.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals saw Arizona’s law as an attempt to make immigration law at the state level. According to Judge Alex Kozinsky, “We conclude that … Arizona’s policy classifies noncitizens based on Arizona’s independent definition of ‘authorized presence,’ classification authority denied the states under the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

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