Driver’s licenses for Arizona’s DREAMers

The Supreme Court delivered a Christmas present to Arizona DREAMers.

You remember the DREAMers. This is one of the few cohorts of illegal immigrants who are actually innocent of wrongdoing since they were brought here as children by their parents.

Although many DREAMers are reluctant to acknowledge this fact, it’s the parents who did something wrong when they violated immigration law. But, in this country, we don’t punish children for the sins of their parents.

Instead, where it makes sense, we make accommodations.

One such accommodation is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program by the Obama administration that allows undocumented youths to apply for a temporary reprieve from deportation and a two-year work permit.

But what good is a job if you can’t get to it? And so now, thanks to the high court and lower federal courts, the estimated 22,000 DREAMers in Arizona can finally do what thousands of other young adults do each year in the Grand Canyon State: apply for a driver’s license.

That’s appropriate. Many of these people are driving anyway, and they have been for years. Why not give them a license and make them buy insurance? Besides, under DACA, these kids are working and paying taxes to the state of Arizona — some of which go to build roads. How can state officials deny these people the right to drive on roads they helped build?

This historic development came about despite the best efforts by state officials to block it, as a way of protesting the administration’s policy. Whereas officials in most states made no attempt to deny DREAMers driver’s licenses, Arizona once again outdid itself. Along with Nebraska, it was one of only two states to deny driving privileges to DACA recipients.

In 2012, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer — who had already used the immigration issue and her support for a tough state law that required local police to enforce federal immigration statutes to scare up enough votes to win re-election in 2010 — went so far as to sign an executive order that barred DREAMers from obtaining driver’s licenses.

Normally, the issue of jurisdiction would be a slam dunk. Regulating driving privileges is the job of states. But, when state officials arbitrarily deny one group of people a benefit enjoyed by others — especially for crass political reasons — the federal courts must step in and correct the injustice.

Recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals began the process of making such a correction when it ruled that Brewer’s prohibition of driver’s licenses for DREAMers was likely unconstitutional and told a lower court to issue a temporary injunction preventing state officials from enforcing the executive order. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court declined to review the lower court ruling and denied Brewer’s request for a stay.

U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell will hold a hearing on January 7 to hear oral arguments and decide whether to make the injunction permanent.

Within days of the high court’s ruling, DREAMers (for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) started lining up at Arizona Department of Transportation offices around the state to apply for driver’s licenses.

In Arizona, and around the country, we can spend the next few years haggling over the details of what the actual driver’s licenses look like.

Some states might choose to add distinguishing marks to driver’s licenses that go to the undocumented. Some states have already done that, for instance, stamping the words: “For Driving Purposes Only” or “Not for Identification” on top of some licenses. This prevents these documents from being used for other purposes, such as boarding airplanes.

If they were meant for driving, then it’s fine to limit their uses to driving. There is nothing wrong with these distinguishing marks, and if allowing them breaks the political impasse in some states and lets people drive legally who might not otherwise have that privilege, then all the better.

But this story is about much more than being able to drive.

It’s about DREAMers stepping up and declaring their loyalty to the United States and their intent to stay here. Where else do they have to go?

They came here as children — in fact, some as infants — and they’ve lived here most of their lives. This is their country, just as much as it is yours or mine. They’re not here to subvert our way of life, but to join it. They want to be part of the family. And, given the initiative and perseverance they’ve shown in just getting this far, we should welcome that.

Think about what happened recently when about 40 DREAMers — from Arizona, Colorado, Texas, California, New York and New Mexico — decided to do what nativists tell them to do and “go back to Mexico.” The nativists want DREAMers to go one-way, but this group went round-trip.

I’ve interviewed some of these travelers, including Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas, the outspoken co-directors of the Dream Action Coalition.

During the trip, which was organized by the Mexican Embassy and Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and made possible because of the limited travel privileges that come with DACA, something happened that was interesting but not totally unexpected.

After spending years in the United States being viewed as Mexicans, once the DREAMers got to Mexico, they were treated as Americans. And, the more the DREAMers interacted with native Mexicans, the more it became clear that this is how they see themselves as well.

Living in the United States has shaped their world view in profound ways that can’t be undone. It’s been said that these undocumented youths are caught between two worlds. Perhaps. But now we know that they only belong in one country. This one.

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