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New Federal Guidance Makes Clear That States Should Let the DREAMers Drive

Dulce Matuz
Dulce Matuz
Michael Tan,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project
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January 18, 2013

Today the federal government issued new guidance that should end the latest form of anti-immigrant discrimination at the state level: the decision by certain states to deny driver’s licenses to young immigrants who were brought to the country as children—or “DREAMers.”

This past June, President Obama announced a new federal program—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or “DACA”)—that would protect DREAMers from deportation and grant them work permits for a renewable two-year basis. With DACA, the federal government chose to recognize the contributions that talented and hard-working young immigrants make to our country and to help them achieve their educational and career goals. But since the President’s announcement, a minority of states—Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, and, recently, Iowa have—chosen to undermine the DACA program by denying DACA recipients driver’s licenses.

As detailed in our lawsuits in Arizona and Michigan challenging these restrictions, these policies effectively make it impossible for DREAMers to go about their daily lives, preventing them from driving to work, taking their siblings or children to and from school, or even going to the grocery store. In some cases, state officials have explicitly sought to sabotage the DACA program. But in others—such as Michigan—these restrictions reflect confusion about the permission to live in the country that DACA provides. In particular, several states have concluded that DACA recipients are ineligible for driver’s licenses because they are not “lawfully present” or “authorized” to be in the country under federal immigration law.

New guidance from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services puts this debate to rest. As the FAQs explain:

“An individual who has received deferred action is authorized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be present in the United States, and is therefore considered by DHS to be lawfully present during the period deferred action is in effect.”

Thus, the FAQs confirm a fact that already should have been clear: individuals with deferred action are legally authorized to be present in the United States. Indeed, this is the point of DACA—to permit qualified individuals to live and work in the country for a certain period of time. Or to put it more bluntly: DACA recipients have papers under federal law. Therefore, states have no business labeling them as “unlawful” or “unauthorized” and denying them the license to drive.

For vast majority of Americans, a drivers’ license is a necessity for work and school. As our client in Michigan, Javier Contreras, explains, getting a drivers’ license is a prerequisite for “a normal American life.” Javier, a national honors student who will graduate from high school this spring, needs to drive in order to get to college, to work and support himself and his family, and to live his American dream. We need to support individuals like Javier and the thousands of other talented young immigrants who have grown up in this country and want to contribute to their communities.

Licensing drivers is also good policy. Licensing promotes public safety and reduces insurance costs for everyone on the road. And states have every incentive to adopt policies that welcome, rather than marginalize, our immigrant youth.

Now that the federal government has spoken, it’s up to the states to decide whether they will follow the law, or keep on discriminating. Either way, the ACLU stands ready to defend the rights of DREAMers everywhere.

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