A federal appeals court ruled Monday that young adult illegal immigrants whom President Obama has given tentative permission to be in the country — so-called "dreamers" — are also entitled to driver's licenses and ordered Arizona to issue them.
The ruling comes while the government is debating policy about a new wave of illegal immigrant children who are surging across the border in Texas, overwhelming federal authorities' ability to handle them.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer blasted the court's ruling, saying it could end up meaning her state would have to grant driver's licenses to some of those in the latest wave of illegal immigrants if Mr. Obama finds ways to avoid deporting them too.
But immigrant-rights advocates hailed the decision, saying it is a major step in helping the Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as minors by their parents, move toward some sort of normal life in the U.S.
"This is a huge victory for the young immigrants who want nothing more than to make meaningful contributions to communities in their home state of Arizona," said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
A three-judge panel on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Dreamers — so-named because of pending federal legislation known as the Dream Act — are in the same situation as other illegal immigrants who have applied for legal status and to whom Arizona law grants driver's licenses while they await a final ruling in their cases.
The judges said to treat the Dreamers differently violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
The ruling could bolster Mr. Obama's desire later this summer to claim executive powers to carve out even more illegal immigrants from the danger of deportation.
The judges said Congress has given the executive branch "broad discretion" to decide whether illegal immigrants are able to live and work in the U.S., and the judges said Arizona was interfering with that ability.
The ruling once again puts Arizona in the center of the immigration debate — a role that the state had played for years but which it seemed to be shedding in recent months as Texas rose to the front — overwhelmed by a new wave of illegal immigrant families and unaccompanied children from Central America.
More than 10,000 unaccompanied children are crossing the border each month, as well as nearly that many families made up of women and young children.
On Monday, one congressman, Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican and a doctor, called for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to take an active role in making sure the children are screened for contagious diseases after reports have surfaced of some of them carrying diseases that had been nearly eradicated in the U.S.
"As the unaccompanied children continue to be transported to shelters around the country on commercial airlines and other forms of transportation, I have serious concerns that the diseases carried by these children may begin to spread too rapidly to control," Mr. Gingrey said in a letter to the CDC.
The CDC didn't respond to a message seeking comment.
The surge of children has renewed the immigration debate two years after it was a major part of the 2012 presidential campaign.
During that campaign, Mr. Obama, seeking to bolster his standing among Hispanic voters, gave tentative legal status to the Dreamers under a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That granted a stay of deportation, along with work permits, to more than 600,000 illegal immigrant children 30 and under that had been brought to the U.S. as children.
Most states ruled that those children were eligible for driver's licenses, but Arizona ruled they weren't.
Ms. Brewer said Monday that the children are still here illegally, according to both federal law and the Department of Homeland Security, so there's no reason her state should grant them licenses on the basis of an administrative decision that, she said, conflicts with the law.
"This policy choice is not federal law authorizing an illegal alien's presence in the country — it simply is a choice by the executive branch not to enforce deportation proceedings as required under existing federal statute," she said.
She also said the DACA policy is responsible for the newest surge of illegal immigrants and warned that if the court's ruling stands, "the president, as he has already threatened, can contrive a new program refusing to deport the latest arrivals [and] issue employment authorization cards, and Arizona would have to issue licenses to them as well."
The judges said the problem was that Arizona was treating Dreamers differently than it treated other noncitizens who didn't have full legal authorization to be in the country because they were still in the process of applying for a reprieve from deportation.
Judge Morgan Christen went further, saying in a concurring opinion that Arizona changed its laws midway through the process specifically to try to deny Dreamers licenses — a move that the judge said left it far afield from federal law.
"When it adopted its new policy regarding driver's license eligibility, Arizona did not merely borrow a federal immigration classification; it created a new one. By doing so, Arizona ventured into an area — the creation of immigration classifications — that is the exclusive domain of the federal government," Judge Christen wrote.
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