PHOENIX – A U.S. appeals court sided Monday with advocates for young immigrants who argued that the southwestern state of Arizona’s policy of denying them driver’s licenses, even though they had work permits under an Obama administration policy, violated their equal protection rights.
The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals marks a victory for immigrant rights advocates who argued the young immigrants were harmed by unequal treatment.
Arizona was one of two states that refused to issue licenses to young immigrants, sparking the latest court fight over the issue.
“We hope that this ruling signals the end of what has been an unfortunate anti-immigrant period in Arizona,” said Karen Tumlin, one of the attorneys representing the immigrants.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer pointed out Monday that the judges who ruled against her were appointed by Democratic presidents. She blamed President Barack Obama’s policy for the recent influx of immigrants entering the country illegally and noted that the program isn’t federal law.
The Obama administration in June 2012 took administrative steps to shield thousands of immigrants from deportation. Applicants must have come to the United States before they turned 16, be younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, be in school or have graduated from high school or an equivalent program, or have served in the military. They also were allowed to apply for a two-year renewable work permit.
About 520,000 people have been approved to take part in the program, including about 19,000 in Arizona.
Brewer issued an executive order in August 2012 directing state agencies to deny driver’s licenses and other public benefits to young immigrants who get work authorization under the program.
In May 2013, a U.S. District judge rejected the argument by immigrant rights advocates who said Brewer’s policy was unconstitutional because it’s trumped by federal law. But the judge said the advocates were likely to succeed in arguing that the state lets some immigrants with work permits get driver’s licenses but won’t let immigrants protected under Obama’s program have the same benefit.
The state revised the policy last year by saying it would stop issuing driver’s licenses to all people who receive deportation deferrals from the federal government, not just young immigrants given protection under Obama’s policy. The governor’s attorneys argued the revision makes the equal-protection arguments moot.
But the immigrants’ lawyers said the revision was a clear attempt to undermine their equal-protection claim.
The governor’s attorneys said the driver’s license policy grew out of concerns over the liability of giving licenses to people who aren’t authorized to be in the country and reducing the risk of licenses being used to improperly access public benefits.
AP writer Paul Davenport contributed to this report.