The state Division of Motor Vehicles will comply with a state attorney general’s opinion and issue driver’s licenses to thousands of young illegal immigrants who are eligible to drive because of a federal program that gives them temporary protection from deportation, Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said Thursday.
“We must balance the public safety and rights of citizens who have lawful status, with the newly accorded status of those who are legally present and wish to become citizens,” Tata said at a news conference.
Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office said Jan. 17 that participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program qualify for licenses because they are given work permits that prove their “legal presence” in North Carolina. That means they meet requirements set by state law for drivers who are not U.S. citizens.
On March 25, DMV offices will begin issuing licenses to DACA participants who pass tests and provide documentation. Tata said it would take time to train license examiners and make computer software changes necessary to produce the new licenses.
The issue affects teenagers and young adults – estimated at 18,000 to 50,000 in North Carolina – who were brought to the United States illegally as children. President Barack Obama’s DACA program provides two-year work permits and a deferral of deportation for young immigrants who meet certain requirements that involve age and education or military service.
The licenses will be printed with the same expiration dates shown on the drivers’ DACA work permits, Tata said, most of them for two years or less.
He was flanked by a dozen state and local law-enforcement officers. A few of them said the decision to issue the licenses would promote public safety.
“We wanted something where they could show us that they are eligible to drive and can do it safely,” Guilford County Sheriff B.J. Barnes said. “This is something law enforcement has needed. This is all about safety for us. This is about knowing who we are dealing with.”
‘It’s going to eliminate a lot of chaos’
Tata said he also had consulted Gov. Pat McCrory, department lawyers and Hispanic and immigrant advocates as he decided how to respond to the attorney general’s legal advice.
The Rev. Carlos A. Cortez of Knightdale, pastor of the Primera Asamblea de Dios, thanked Tata.
“I just want to express our great appreciation for simply being the man you are, and to all who are collaborating with you in getting this done,” Cortez said at the news conference. “It’s going to eliminate a lot of chaos in our community.”
Raul Pinto, a Raleigh-based lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, wasn’t happy that young immigrants will have to wait six weeks to begin receiving licenses. But he endorsed Tata’s decision.
“It will benefit productive members of our community who have been going to school, going to work,” Pinto said. “So it’s an important decision.”
Jess George, executive director of the Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition, called the license decision “a shining example of how access and opportunity benefits all of our communities and the state as a whole.”
In January, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest blasted Obama’s program and the attorney general’s opinion supporting licenses for DACA participants. Forest did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Tata drew support from Kieran Shanahan, the state public safety secretary.
“Most people would say the rule of law is the most important thing in this country, and thank goodness we have it,” Shanahan said at the news conference.
A driver’s license is “the key to many things in our society,” Tata said.
“Now we know there are some people driving without licenses, so if they are approved under the DACA program they will be able to come in and get a license. We will know who there are, and they will have insurance, and we will make our roads safer,” Tata said.
His announcement reverses a DMV policy that was established quietly in September under the previous administration, but was not consistently enforced until after Tata took over at DOT in January.
President Obama announced the DACA program in June, and state DMV officials initially indicated that they would issue licenses to DACA participants. But in September, then-DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson called a halt and asked Cooper for a legal opinion. Robertson said DMV would not issue the licenses unless the attorney general affirmed their legality.
In a bulletin distributed Sept. 14 to DMV officials across the state, Robertson instructed license examiners not to issue licenses or ID cards “to anyone claiming ‘deferred action’ status under the ‘Dream Act’ ” until DMV received legal guidance. Robertson retired in October. DOT officials have found no evidence that local DMV employees received any further guidance on the issue over the next three months.
A present for immigrants
Immigrant advocates say substantial numbers of DACA participants were able to get licenses until early January, when DMV began enforcing Robertson’s policy more consistently. On Jan. 11, DMV revoked 13 licenses it said had been issued incorrectly. A few days later the agency went public with rules to block more DACA immigrants from being allowed to drive.
Tata said DMV officials simply took steps in January to enforce Robertson’s DACA policy.
“Today is the first time I have made a decision on this policy,” Tata said. Later, he added, “What happened in September was that a private decision was made, not communicated to anyone, so nobody knew that DMV was not issuing these licenses.”
Marty Rosenbluth, an immigration lawyer based in Durham, called Thursday’s announcement “a nice Valentine’s Day present for the immigrant community.”
He saw a political slant in the decision, issued under a newly elected Republican governor. Republican leaders have argued that their party must work harder to win political support from Hispanic voters.
“It’s very nice to know that the governor, Mr. Tata and Mr. Forest have decided that they have to follow state laws,” Rosenbluth said. “I think they realized that either they were going to have this huge battle that probably wasn’t going to sit well with the national Republican Party, or they were going to have to back down.”