N.C. AG Cooper says young illegal immigrants in federal program should get driver's licenses

01/30/2013 3:48 PM

01/30/2013 3:48 PM

The state Attorney General’s office said Thursday that young illegal immigrants participating in an Obama administration program blocking deportation for two years should be eligible for driving privileges in North Carolina, but by day’s end it wasn’t clear whether the DMV would issue them.

Katy Chavez, a lawyer in Raleigh, said a handful of her clients planned to test the opinion Friday, seeking licenses at DMV offices throughout the region that allow them to drive legally. Other lawyers eagerly await the results.

“I think the DMV is going to have to follow the law,” Chavez said.

The legal opinion was intended to end widespread confusion about whether young illegal immigrants who have stepped out of the shadows for a reprieve on deportation have the legal presence necessary for driving privileges. Tony Tata, the new secretary of transportation, said last week that he was awaiting the attorney general’s opinion before deciding whether to issue licenses to participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Barack Obama created last year.

“We’ll do whatever the law tells us to do,” Tata said in an interview Jan. 11.

But by late Thursday, more than five hours after the opinion was released, acting DMV Commissioner J. Eric Boyette said DMV officials had not formulated their response.

“We have just received the ruling from the Attorney General’s office regarding driver’s licenses for people in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program today and we are in the process of reviewing it,” Boyette said by email.

Some granted mistakenly

Some DMV offices in North Carolina had been granting licenses to participants in the DACA program. But shortly after Gov. Pat McCrory and Tata took office this month, Boyette sent letters to some of the immigrants who had received licenses saying their driving privileges would be revoked because they had been granted mistakenly.

A spokeswoman said DMV had issued licenses to only 13 DACA participants, but immigration-rights advocates said they thought hundreds of licenses had been granted to deferred-action participants across the state.

An estimated 180,000 young men and women in the state qualify for the DACA program, which postpones the deportation of people who entered the United States illegally when they were children. The DACA program grants two-year work permits for those who immigrated before they turned 16, are not yet older than 30, and have served in the military or are high school graduates or college students.

‘Legally present’ in U.S.

Former DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson said in September that DMV would stop issuing licenses to DACA participants until the attorney general determined whether the young immigrants meet a requirement under North Carolina law to provide documents certifying their “legal presence” in the state.

The answer, in a three-page letter from Grayson G. Kelley, the chief deputy attorney general, was yes.

“We believe that individuals who present documentation demonstrating a grant of deferred action by the United States government are legally present in the United States and entitled to a drivers license of limited duration, assuming all other criteria are met,” Kelley wrote in a letter addressed to Boyette, Robertson’s successor.

Kelley noted that the Obama administration did not change the unlawful status of illegal immigrants when it granted a two-year reprieve from deportation to participants in the DACA program. Kelley added that his opinion should not be construed as altering that finding.

Robertson, an appointee of former Gov. Bev Perdue, retired from DMV in October, a few weeks after his request for the legal opinion. Boyette has served as the acting head of the division since then.

Response unclear

Tata, who took charge of DMV after McCrory’s inauguration, has said he would announce a new DMV commissioner this week.

There was no response from the state Department of Transportation on Thursday to how Kelley’s opinion would affect its policies. There was no change to a page on the DMV website that spells out documents that can be offered by noncitizens who want to establish their legal presence in the state. The Web page says DMV officers will not accept work permits from participants in the DACA program.

Civil-rights advocates urged DMV to comply with the attorney general’s opinion.

“In light of this clear opinion, the DMV should do the right thing and reinstate its policy of granting licenses to all qualified drivers who have received deferred action,” said Raul Pinto, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Raleigh.

North Carolina’s decision to deny licenses put the state in line with Arizona, Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska and out of step with such states as California, Texas and Florida, which were granting licenses.

The patchwork pattern shows how states continue to grapple with their responses to federal policy on immigration.

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