PHOENIX - Immigrant rights advocates filed a lawsuit Thursday that seeks to overturn Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's order denying driver's licenses for young immigrants who have gotten work permits and avoided deportation under a new Obama administration policy.
The lawsuit alleges the state has in effect classified young-adult immigrants as not having permission to be in the country and asks a federal judge to declare Brewer's policy unconstitutional because it's trumped by federal law and denies licenses without valid justification.
Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, said Brewer is playing politics with the young immigrants.
"This is another example of the state of Arizona thumbing its nose at the federal government," Soler said.
The Obama administration in June took administrative steps to shield as many as 800,000 immigrants from deportation. Applicants must have come to the United States before they turned 16, be younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, be in school or have graduated from high school or GED program, or have served in the military. They also were allowed to apply for a two-year renewable work permit.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in August that each state could determine whether to issue driver's licenses or extend benefits such as in-state tuition to immigrants who are granted deferred status. Some states, such as Oregon and Nevada, have announced that they will grant driving privileges to those eligible for the new program. Others, such as Arizona and Michigan, have vowed to deny them.
Brewer spokesman Matt Benson said the governor has a duty to defend a state law that limits public benefits and driver's licenses to people who are in the country legally and that the young immigrants who received the deferred deportation aren't in the country legally. Benson said Obama's program isn't congressionally authorized as other federal deferred deportation programs are.
"The legal limbo now faced by (the Obama program's) recipients is not due to any action by the state of Arizona or Arizona voters," Benson said. "Rather, it is due to President Obama's decision to pursue this program via executive action rather than through the proper legislative process."
The governor has clashed with the Obama administration in the past over illegal immigration, most notably in the challenge that the federal government filed in a bid to invalidate Arizona's 2010 immigration law. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law's most contentious section, but threw out other sections.
Lawyers for three civil rights groups that led a challenge to the 2010 state law also filed the lawsuit over Brewer's driver's license policy.
The latest case was filed on behalf of the five young-adult immigrants in Arizona who were brought to the United States from Mexico as children and were granted deferred deportation protections under the Obama administration's policy but were denied licenses or complained that Brewer's order has caused significant hardships.
Brewer's policy makes it difficult or impossible for such young immigrants to do essential things in their everyday life, such as going to school, going to the grocery store, and finding and holding down a job, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said Brewer's order means federal work permits for the program's participants won't be accepted as proof of their legal presence in the country for the purpose of getting a driver's license. Still, the lawsuit said, the state will accept such a work permit from immigrants who have won deferred deportation status as part of other federal immigration programs.
The five young immigrants aren't seeking money damages and instead are asking a judge to bar Arizona from denying driver's licenses to immigrants who were granted deferred deportation status by the federal government. It seeks class-action status that would let all other young immigrants in Arizona who were granted the deferred-deportation protection join the lawsuit.
About 11,000 people living in Arizona have applied for the deferred deportation protection under the Obama administration's policy.
The lawsuit was also filed on behalf of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition, a group that advocates for federal legislation that would provide a path to legal status for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants.
The three groups leading the lawsuit are the National Immigration Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.