Young immigrants eager for NC driver's licenses

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMarch 25, 2013 

Hundreds of young illegal immigrants across North Carolina took advantage of their first chance Monday to apply for the privilege to drive a car.

The state Division of Motor Vehicles began issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants enrolled in a federal program that defers deportation for teens and young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children or stayed illegally after their visas expired.

More than 16,500 immigrants in North Carolina have received or applied for two-year work permits from the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Monday was the first day DMV accepted these work permits as proof – required for noncitizens – of a driver’s “legal presence” in the state.

“I’ve been waiting ever since I was little to get my license,” said Adrian Razo, 18, a native of Mexico who has lived in Siler City “as long as I can remember.”

Out of 22 immigrants who applied Monday at the Chatham County DMV office, Razo was one of only 10 who passed their written tests on the first try. He emerged with a temporary learner’s permit that will give him time to sharpen his driving skills, under supervision of a family friend who has a license.

He’ll return to DMV in a few weeks to take the driving test for his full license, and the right to drive on his own.

“I’m just glad I’ll be able to get out of the house more often,” Razo said. “I’m able to have freedom to do what I want.”

Across the state, DMV said it issued licenses or learner’s permits Monday to 314 immigrants with deferred-action work permits.

In some households, these young people will find themselves with new freedoms and legal protections their parents do not enjoy.

“The fact is, I’ll be able to drive my parents around, without having to worry about being pulled over by the cops and getting deported,” said Ulises Perez, 18, a junior at Carrboro High School.

A lengthy wait

North Carolina officials pondered legal status and legalisms for months before they decided that state and federal law gave participants in the deferred-action program the right to apply for driver’s licenses.

DMV stopped issuing the licenses last fall pending a state attorney general’s opinion, which finally was issued in January. Transportation Secretary Tony Tata spent a few more weeks weighing the issues before he announced in February that DMV would resume issuing the licenses this week.

The immigrant licenses initially were designed with a bright pink stripe, sparking a backlash from civil rights advocates and religious leaders. Critics likened it to a “scarlet letter” that would target immigrant drivers for prejudicial treatment.

Last week, without acknowledging the criticism, DMV issued a new, pink-free design for the two-year immigrant license. It uses the standard DMV motif with the addition of red-print qualifiers to confirm that the driver has “LEGAL PRESENCE” in the state but “NO LAWFUL STATUS.” That means there is no change in the person’s status as an illegal immigrant.

Some critics were unhappy about the lettering, but they were still glad for the chance to get their licenses.

“The ‘no lawful status’ is kind of racist, that’s how I feel,” said Ivan Benavides, 19, of Raleigh, who said he will apply for his license as soon as he gets car insurance as required by DMV. “But as long as I can drive places, it’s good. I don’t care if it says ‘no lawful status.’ I don’t care about the color. I want to just, like, drive.”

In Siler City, Razo said the legal privilege to drive will make it easier for him to get to his new job at a local radio station, and to start making plans for a career.

“I’m looking forward to college,” Razo said. “Now I’ll be able to drive to campuses and see which ones I’m interested in, and apply.”

‘I think it’s correct’

He’s glad the pink stripe is gone, and he’s satisfied with the legal language on the DMV license.

“I think it’s correct,” Razo said. “The new license makes it clear we have legal presence but no lawful status. But if I have to show my ID to someone, I’m going to have a little bit of trouble explaining why my license says what it says.”

Perez, the Carrboro student, plans to get his license this week. He embraces the new ID, with its contradictory political messages, as part of his American identity.

“It’s like showing that you’re here, and you’re not afraid,” Perez said. “It’s saying that there are undocumented people here, and you’re not afraid to show it. You’re not afraid to tell people who you are.”

Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or or

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