What part of “illegal” don’t you understand? That was the message from a federal court to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer last week. In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Arizona’s policy denying driver’s licenses to Dreamers. Now certain undocumented youth in the Grand Canyon State can obtain licenses like their counterparts in other states.
This decision is as welcome as it is overdue. Governor Brewer had no sound reason for interfering with federal policy on immigration. Allowing young immigrants in Arizona to obtain licenses will enable them to lead more productive lives, and to contribute more fully to the state’s economy.
The only thing that [Gov. Brewer's] opposition to DACA has achieved is reinforcing the image of her state as hostile to immigrants.
- Raúl A. Reyes
To understand the court’s ruling, let’s back up a bit. In 2012, President Obama’s introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Under its terms, immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children are granted relief from deportation and can receive work permits and driver’s licenses. But on the day it went into effect, Brewer signed an executive order forbidding any state agency from issuing licenses to DACA recipients. A group of Dreamers banded together to bring a lawsuit challenging Brewer's order, and this decision is the result.
In ruling against Brewer, the appeals court found that Brewer’s directive was motivated by spite. "Defendants' policy appears intended to express animus toward DACA recipients themselves, in part because of the federal government's policy toward them,'' wrote Judge Harry Pregerson. "Such animus, however, is not a legitimate state interest.''
In other words, just because Brewer is upset with President Obama doesn’t mean she can punish Dreamers. In a state where 87 percent of the workforce commutes by car, Brewer was deliberately making life hard for young immigrants.
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When she issued her executive order, Brewer said, “The Obama amnesty plan doesn’t make them (DACA recipients) legally here.” Yet DACA does not grant “amnesty” to anyone; it is a temporary status that must be renewed every two years. And Brewer doesn’t get to decide who is legally here anyway. The appeals court pointed out that authority over immigration status belongs to the federal government, noting that, “… the states enjoy no power with respect to the classification of citizens.”
Ironically, Brewer has long cited federal inaction on immigration as her justification for SB 1070, Arizona’s infamous “papers, please” law. Then when the federal government did act on immigration (with DACA), Brewer decided to defy the law.
Legalities aside, Brewer’s executive order was pandering designed to bolster her image as an anti-illegal immigration crusader. Consider that studies in North Carolina and California have shown that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses makes the roads safer for everyone. Or that Brewer was squandering the talents of the estimated 30,000 DACA recipients in her state who could have used a car to drive to work and access higher education. In fact, Brewer’s order contradicted existing state policy. Arizona had been issuing driver’s licenses for years to people with federal work permits – the same documents that DACA recipients are issued.
Brewer is not ideally situated to pass judgment on who should have a driver’s license. In 1988, the Arizona Republic reported that she failed a series of sobriety tests after a car accident. Although the police report said that Brewer was at fault, she was not prosecuted because she was then a state senator. She later called the DUI incident ”an unfortunate situation.”
Clearly, Brewer does not agree with DACA. That doesn’t give her the right to create her own immigration policy. Still, Brewer said the court ruling was “outrageous” and called DACA “President Obama’s lawless directive.” Yawn. As the Arizona Republic’s editorial board suggested, “Save the headache, governor, and let 'dreamers' drive.” They’re right. The only thing that her opposition to DACA has achieved is reinforcing the image of her state as hostile to immigrants.
Governor Brewer’s ban on licenses for Dreamers deserved to be struck down. The court was correct to recognize it as pointless policy and mean-spirited politics.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.