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Arizona (Still) Can't Deny Driver's Licenses to Dreamers

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Arizona can't deny driver's licenses to so-called "dreamers," young, undocumented immigrants with work permits and protection from deportation, but not legal status. Those dreamers (whose name comes from the failed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) are noncitizens who were brought to the United States by their parents. Under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, such dreamers are entitled to stay and work in the country, and given documentation to help them do so.

But after the DACA program was established, the Arizona government moved quickly to counteract the program, rejecting DACA documents when submitted for a driver's license. That policy of rejection violates the authority of the federal government, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Tuesday. This is the second time the policy has been defeated in the Ninth Circuit. Will it be the last?

From Dreamers to Drivers

The Obama administration instituted its Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012. Under DACA, some undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country before their 16th birthday are eligible to receive a two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. In the first two years of the program, over half a million youth were given DACA status.

The very same day that DACA was established, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed an executive order declaring that the DACA program "does not and cannot confer lawful or authorized status" on undocumented immigrants.

Pursuant to that order, the Arizona Department of Transportation refused to accept DACA-issued "Employment Authorization Documents" as "proof satisfactory" that an "applicant's presence in the United States is authorized under federal law," as required by Arizona state law.

We'll Go With Preemption

The dreamers sued, winning, in Arizona district court, a permanent injunction against the policy. Refusing EADs, the district court ruled, violated the Equal Protection Clause by treating dreamers differently from other, similarly situated groups of noncitizens that Arizona does deem eligible for licenses.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit almost agreed. Such disparate treatment "may well violate the Equal Protection Clause, as our previous opinion indicated is likely the case," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the court. But, the court didn't need to decide the case on those grounds, Judge Pregerson explained.

Rather, Arizona's policy is invalid because it is preempted by federal law. Since Arizona's policy attempts to create its own definition of "authorized presence," it is preempted by the classification authority granted to the federal government under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the court ruled.

While the INA doesn't prevent all state laws touching on immigration, the court wrote, it does prohibit states from exercising power with respect to the classification of aliens. In attempted to create its own definition of who was and wasn't authorized to be in the country, Arizona "impermissibly strayed into the exclusive domain of the INA," the court ruled.

This is the second time in as many years that the Ninth Circuit has ruled against Arizona's driver's license policy. This might not be the end of the road for Arizona's (increasingly drawn out) fight against dreamer drivers, though. Current Arizona Governor Doug Ducey says he is reviewing the ruling and will decide whether to continue the legal battle shortly.

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