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State by state, driver's licenses are becoming key point on immigration

Jan 11, 2013 - By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- After first indicating it would grant driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants who have received two-year deferrals from deportation, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles now says it will not allow them to drive until the agency receives a legal opinion that requires it to do otherwise.

North Carolina joins Arizona, Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska in denying driver's licenses to deferred action recipients, while other states such as California, Texas and Florida are allowing the licenses. The patchwork pattern shows how states continue to grapple with how to respond to federal policy on immigration.

The decision, which could affect 18,000 North Carolina immigrants, has sent a wave of anxiety across the Tar Heel state.

Cinthia Marroquin, 22, who lives in North Raleigh, applied for deferred action in October and expects to receive her work permit by the end of the month. Her first stop after getting her Social Security Card was the DMV _ until now.

"It's horrible," she said. "Do I even get a job? Am I going to make it? What am I going to do? You can't really get a job, basically."

The Obama administration announced plans in June to prevent the deportations of an estimated 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. More than 350,000 already have applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which blocks deportation and grants a two-year work permit to undocumented youths who came to the United States before they turned 16, are not older than 30, and are high school graduates, attending college or have served in the military.

The question of allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses has long been source of contention across the states.

Proponents of allowing the licenses charge that it's better to have licensed drivers on the road and that illegal immigrants will drive regardless of whether they have a license in order to work. Critics, however, argue that granting driver's licenses is another incentive for higher illegal immigration.

Many states, including North Carolina, have passed laws that prevent illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses.

But perspectives may be changing. Two-thirds of voters in the Nov. 6 election said undocumented immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status, according to exit polls. Only about one in three said they should be deported.

This week, Illinois lawmakers approved a new measure that would allow all undocumented immigrants to get temporary driver's licenses. Lawmakers in Nevada also have raised the possibility of allowing illegal immigrants to drive.

In Florida and California, officials have determined that as long as immigrants present the work permits, they can obtain driver's licenses.

"We don't make any distinction, because we recognize the work authorization card that they received from (the deferred deportation process)," said Armando Botello, spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

While each state sets its own driver's license policy, most allow noncitizens who hold work permits or who are granted deferred action to apply for driver's licenses, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

The American Civil Liberties Union is investigating the North Carolina cases. It already has filed lawsuits in Michigan and Arizona after state leaders made policy decisions to deny driver's licenses to those allowed to work and stay in the country under the federal deferral program.

People who received deferred action for other humanitarian reasons, such as victims of domestic violence, asylum cases and victims of hurricanes, have been able to get driver's licenses in North Carolina and other states, said Raul Pinto, staff attorney with the ACLU in North Carolina.

"States do have the right to control who they license," Pinto said. "But here it's going to the crux of being treated equally. And the federal government has determined this group can work in the United States and obtain Social Security numbers. And now they're being treated differently by their state governments."

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