The Obama administration says that illegal immigrants who qualify for its new non-deportation policy are now "considered to be lawfully present" in the U.S. — a legal status that could help them to get driver's licenses.
Known as "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," or DACA, the new policy grants a tentative status to most illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 and who are 30 or younger.
But the policy has left states facing thorny legal questions about what benefits they can give to those who qualify — with driver's licenses being a major issue.
The applicants are known as "Dreamers" because of a bill, the Dream Act, that would have granted them a full path to citizenship. That legislation has not passed, but President Obama used the same criteria to draw up his non-deportation policy.
Immigrant rights groups said Friday the new guidance should ease the way for Dreamers to get behind the wheel legally.
"Our local groups were hearing of too many Dreamers being denied driver's licenses," said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy at United We Dream. "Thanks to DACA, tens of thousands of Dreamers are in the workforce and contributing and state officials should no longer be able to deny [anyone who qualifies for DACA] a driver's license."
DACA, though, does not create a path to citizenship. Instead, it grants a stay of deportation and allows applicants to obtain a work permit.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees the policy, also released the latest data showing 154,404 people had been approved as of Jan. 17, with another 240,000 awaiting judgments. The vast majority of applicants — more than 290,000 — are from Mexico.
Some states had already moved ahead with granting driver's licenses to those under the new policy, but other jurisdictions said their laws were more restrictive and would only apply to those "lawfully present" in the U.S.
On Friday, USCIS clarified that those it approves do have that status.
"Although deferred action does not confer a lawful immigration status, your period of stay is authorized by the Department of Homeland Security while your deferred action is in effect and, for admissibility purposes, you are considered to be lawfully present in the United States during that time," the new guidance said.
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