Twenty five-year old José Franco is a Michigan resident who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico by his mother when he was two years old. He applied for deferred deportation under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and upon approval, is looking forward to studying political science and education. But Franco, who co-founded the group One Michigan to provide guidance and advocate for undocumented youth, is worried about Michigan’s Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s decision to deny driver’s licenses to those with deferred deportation status.
“It’s very disappointing, to be allowed to work legally, but not be legally allowed to drive,” says Franco. “Here in Michigan, we do not have a reliable transportation system, and for the young people I know trying to get to school and work, it is a real problem,” Franco states.
Secretary of State Johnson has argued that deferred deportation does not grant legal status to an undocumented Dreamer. “Michigan law requires legal presence, that someone be here legally,” said Johnson’s spokesperson, Gisgie Gendrau, to the Detroit Free Press. “The federal government has said that DACA does not grant legal status, so we can’t issue a driver’s license or state ID to DACA participants,” says Gendrau. “We rely on the feds to determine whether someone is here legally or not – we’re just following their direction,” the Secretary of State’s spokesperson adds.
But Susan Reed, supervising attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, says she thinks the federal government has given pretty clear guidance on who can legally apply for a driver’s license through the government’s Real ID law, which sets federal standards for driver’s licenses. “Under Real ID, which was passed by Congress, the federal government has specifically said those with deferred action status can qualify for a driver’s license,” Reed says. “I’m willing to accept the Secretary of State’s indication that they have made this decision out of uncertainty, but I think it’s over-caution that will negatively impact a very deserving group of people,” she adds.
Reed adds that in Michigan, 90 percent of people drive to work. “I’m hearing from young immigrants that not being allowed to drive does not allow them to make use of the deferred action opportunity, and they are terrified of taking a risk and driving without a license,” Reed says. “It takes the wind out of their sails,” she adds.
Apart from helping deferred action Dreamers work and or go to school, Franco says there is another reason Secretary of State Johnson should change her policy about driver’s licenses. “Michigan is losing population,” says Franco. “This policy the Secretary of State introduced will not help bring back people,” he argues.
This is already happening, according to immigration attorney Susan Reed. “I can tell you my first approved deferred deportation client has voted with her feet and decided to move to Texas,” says Reed. “She lived in Michigan since she was five and has a health sciences degree; so she was someone ready to contribute to her state,” adds Reed. “But she was not willing to start her new life with this degree of uncertainty,” the attorney says.
Michigan now joins two other states — Arizona and Nebraska — who are not giving driver’s licenses to those eligible for deferred deportation. “If Secretary of State Johnson is following the law,” says Franco, “then is she saying that 47 other states are disobeying the law?”
The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center is hoping they can work to change the state’s policy. In the meantime, says Franco, his group is ready to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit. “Members of my group protested and helped put pressure on the President to help Dreamers,” Franco says. “If we have to, we will do it again.”