This past summer marked the start of President Obama’s deferred action program for undocumented immigrants. Thousands who were brought here illegally as children lined up for the chance to live without fear of deportation. But in Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer issued an executive order instructing state agencies to deny driver’s licenses to qualified deferred action applicants.
Now a coalition of civil rights and advocacy groups are challenging Governor Brewer. They filed a class action suit on Thursday, saying it is unconstitutional to deny licenses to undocumented youth. Brewer says the work permits issued under the deferred action policy do not prove legal residency, which is a requirement of obtaining an Arizona driver’s license. Who’s right?
By any measure, Governor Brewer has it all wrong. Her executive order is constitutionally questionable, mean-spirited, and serves no constructive purpose. It contradicts the current policy in her state. Brewer’s position is especially misguided considering that other states often follow Arizona’s lead on immigration – and that the Republican party is trying to make amends with Latinos.
The deferred action program offers undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation provided they have no criminal record and meet other requirements. Under the federal policy, approved applicants can apply for jobs and drivers licenses.
The civil rights groups leading this lawsuit correctly point out that, under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, federal law trumps state law. Since Brewer’s “no-license” directive conflicts with federal policy, it fails a basic constitutional test. Likewise, Brewer’s order violates the Equal Protection clause, as it discriminates against certain non-citizens.
Brewer says that if a person is here illegally, then they are not eligible for a driver’s license. However, her position contradicts Arizona policy. An investigation by the Arizona Republic found that over the past eight years, the state has issued nearly 40,000 drivers licenses and IDs to non-citizens with federal work permits – the same documents that deferred action applicants are issued. The federal work permits are identical, except for a number that identifies some as a deferred action applicant. Anyone with that number, according to the Arizona Republic, cannot get a driver’s license.
On a practical level, Brewer is making life harder for young immigrants who need to drive to get to work or college. She is squandering the potential of the 80,000 people that the Migration Policy Institute says could benefit from the deferred action policy in her state. Ironically, Brewer has long bemoaned Washington’s inaction on immigration and cited it as a justification for SB 1070, the state’s “papers, please” law. Yet since the Obama administration implemented its deferred action policy, Brewer has defied it.
Brewer would be hard pressed to say what interest her position serves. She is reinforcing the image of her state as hostile to Latinos, at a time when even notoriously anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio declares he can “get along great with the Hispanics.” Meanwhile, Arizona has been drawn into another lawsuit at taxpayer expense and the GOP faces a public relations disaster.
Brewer ought to recognize that issuing licenses to deferred action applicants would make Arizona safer, as more people would be driving with licenses and insurance. Safe driving should be a concern of Brewer; in 1988 she was in an auto accident and failed a series of sobriety tests. The police report said she was at fault but as a state senator, she received immunity from arrest and prosecution.
Besides being the right thing to do, President Obama’s policy is the law and Brewer must comply with it. Michigan and Mississippi have already followed her lead and refused licenses to deferred action applicants. It is unfortunate that it takes a lawsuit to remind these states that they cannot set their own immigration policy.
Brewer is standing in the way of progress on immigration, so this is one fight she deserves to lose. Whether she likes it or not, the federal government has exclusive authority over immigration. So, what part of illegal doesn’t she understand?
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.