Young immigrants qualify for N.C. driver's licenses, civil rights groups say

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2013 

COOPER01.NE.072910.ASR

Attorney General Roy Cooper

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com

— Lawyers for two civil rights groups called on state officials Monday to reinstate a policy that made driver’s licenses available to young illegal immigrants who are taking part in a federal program that blocks their deportation for two years.

“They have all the required documents,” said Kate Woomer-Deters, an immigrant rights advocate with the N.C. Justice Center. “They have an employment authorization card showing their legal presence in the country. They are fully eligible for North Carolina driver’s licenses.”

The state Division of Motor Vehicles says it has stopped issuing the licenses, pending a ruling from state Attorney General Roy Cooper on whether an estimated 18,000 to 50,000 young men and women in the state who are eligible for the federal program are also eligible to drive under state law.

President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in June to prevent the deportation of an estimated 1.8 million people who were brought into the country illegally as 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 attending college.

Former DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson requested the attorney general’s ruling shortly before he retired in October.

His question centered on applicants for licenses who are not U.S. citizens, and documents they must provide to certify their “legal presence” in the country. Robertson asked whether DMV should accept a federal employment authorization card with a special “C33” code, which indicates that the applicant is taking part in the DACA program.

“No such licenses will be issued unless we receive written guidance from your office informing us that North Carolina law does, in fact, require them to be issued,” Robertson wrote in a Sept. 10 letter to Cooper.

The N.C. Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter said Monday that Cooper’s office should tell DMV to issue the licenses. The two groups released a letter to Cooper’s staff, dated Friday, asserting that DACA participants meet North Carolina’s legal requirements for receiving a license.

“It makes no sense to say that people authorized to live and work in the United States should not be allowed to drive,” Raul Pinto, an ACLU lawyer, said in a news release.

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, who is expected to name a new DMV commissioner this week, said he would wait for Cooper’s ruling.

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

There was no indication when the attorney general’s office would issue its opinion.

“Attorneys with our office are studying the legal issues involved,” Cooper’s spokeswoman Noelle Talley said Friday.

DMV initially had said last summer it would issue licenses to DACA participants. There was no public announcement in September about Robertson’s change of mind, and his decision was not uniformly enforced at DMV offices across the state. Lawyers who represent immigrants say that many of their young clients successfully obtained their licenses, until recently.

“Until last week, we hadn’t heard any cases of kids having problems,” said Marty Rosenbluth, a lawyer with the Durham-based N.C. Immigration Rights Project.

Rosenbluth said DMV’s website was updated sometime between Friday and Monday to specify for the first time that deferred-action program participants with “C33” DACA work permits would be rejected. Even so, he said, one of his clients succeeded in getting her learner’s permit Monday.

“They looked at her work permit and her Social Security card,” Rosenbluth said. “It’s clear the policy hasn’t trickled down yet to all of the DMV offices.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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