In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, Joshua Montano, left, and Deborah Robles protest in front of the Capitol the day after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, in an executive order reaffirming Arizona state law denying young illegal immigrants driver's licenses and other public benefits in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, Joshua Montano, left, and Deborah Robles protest in front of the Capitol the day after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, in an executive order reaffirming Arizona state law denying young illegal immigrants driver’s licenses and other public benefits in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Arizona debates driver’s licenses for immigrants

After Mabel Muñoz was stopped by police while driving to her college dormitory, the honor student was terrified to learn she would be spending the night in jail with criminals because she didn’t have a driver’s license.

“It was horrible,” Muñoz recalled after a House hearing Thursday on driver’s licenses for immigrants. “I’ve been following the rules, but I can’t follow this rule because they won’t let me get a driver’s license.”

In a state long known for its headline-making immigration crackdowns, Arizona Democratic lawmakers are urging their Republican counterparts to extend driver’s licenses to young immigrants granted legal status by President Barack Obama. But Republican leaders said they aren’t interested.

Legislation sponsored by Democratic Rep. Catherine Miranda would allow immigrants who have obtained federally issued employment authorization to legally drive in Arizona. The House Transportation Committee heard from proponents of the bill Thursday but did not vote.

During the hearing, House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Kaken Fann  said she would not call a vote on the bill because she wanted lawmakers to absorb the subject without distraction.

“This is our time to listen,” she said. “Sometimes we are so frustrated, we are so busy yelling and screaming that we forget to stop and listen.”

After the meeting, Fann told the Associated Press that the bill was dead in the House.

“We are not voting this session on it. It’s not ready to be voted on,” she said.

Fann said there are too many questions regarding the legality of Obama’s immigration changes.

“I don’t think it was legal,” she said. “It should have gone through the House and the Senate and onto the president.”

Arizona law does not allow drivers without satisfactory proof of legal status to obtain a license. The Department of Homeland Security issued a memo in January that said young immigrants granted “deferred action” status are legally in the country.

Obama said in July that people younger than 30 brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 could apply for the deferred status. They will be granted work permits and Social Security numbers.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has issued an executive order barring state agencies from giving driver’s licenses to those granted deferral. The decision sparked a federal lawsuit by some people denied licenses. That suit is pending. Brewer said Monday that she had not changed her position.

Hispanic lawmakers said Arizona’s anti-immigrant image needs a makeover and urged Republicans to embrace expanded rights for immigrant youths.

“If we don’t, I fear that we are creating a generation of anger and resentment … a generation that has felt the rejection of a society that would rather see investment in their incarceration rather than their education,” said Democratic Rep. Lydia Hernandez.

Muñoz, who graduated last year from Arizona State University, said she has applied for deferred status under Obama’s new rules.

“I am going to be legal here, and doesn’t that mean I should be able to drive?” she said during the committee meeting. “What harm would our driver’s licenses do to you?”

Miranda said it was noteworthy that Republican leadership allowed the bill to be heard in committee, but she lamented that the debate was one-sided and conceded that the bill faces significant opposition in the GOP-controlled Legislature. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate but has not gained traction.

Lucia Guerra-Rodriquez, an insurance agent, said arrests of drivers who cannot legally obtain insurance can overwhelm court dockets. Arizona requires drivers to obtain insurance, but drivers can’t apply for insurance without a legal license.

“Accidents with people without insurance cause insurance rates to rise for everyone,” she said.

Todd Landfried, executive director of the business group Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, said denying legal workers licenses depresses the economy by making it harder for people to find and obtain work and pay taxes.

“Their ability to drive is intrinsically linked to employment,” he said. “We see no downside to providing driver’s licenses to those who have met all the legal requirements for obtaining one.”

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