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Arizona driver's license ruling marks immigration victory for Obama

A federal judge issued a permanent injunction Thursday requiring Arizona to issue driver's licenses to immigrants who have been granted deferred action from deportation.

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A line stretches outside an a Arizona Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Division office on Dec. 22, the first day that Dreamers, young immigrants protected from deportation under Obama administration policies, could obtain driver's licenses. On Thursday, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction requiring the state to issue driver's licenses to immigrants granted deferred status.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

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A federal judge’s decision to permanently require Arizona to issue driver’s licenses to immigrants who have been granted deferred action from deportation marks another significant victory for the Obama administration in its effort to exert executive power over immigration in the face of opposition by various state governments.

US District Judge David Campbell issued a permanent injunction Thursday blocking measures endorsed by Arizona officials that had been designed to prevent so-called Dreamers from obtaining state-issued driver’s licenses.

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Licenses have been issued under a preliminary injunction for the past month to participants in President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The new permanent injunction requires Arizona to grant driver’s licenses to any would-be immigrant who has been issued employment authorization by the federal government.

The ruling means that as many as 80,000 Dreamers in Arizona can receive licenses that will allow them to drive to and from work and lead more comfortable and normal lives despite their unsettled immigration status.  

In 2012, the Obama administration announced that it would defer deportation for a category of young US residents who entered the US illegally with their parents. In November, President Obama announced that he was expanding the deferred action program to include up to five million of the estimated 11 million residents believed to be in the US without legal authorization.

Some 25 states are suing the Obama administration in federal court in Texas, arguing that the president’s unilateral action violates the separation of powers and exceeds other constitutional checks on executive authority.

The judge in that case held a hearing last week and is expected to rule soon on a requested injunction to block the president’s executive actions on immigration.

The Arizona driver’s license case was brought by a coalition of immigrants, who complained that the ban on licenses violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

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Judge Campbell agreed. He noted in his 20-page decision that Arizona refused to accept federal work authorization documents issued to Dreamers, even though the state had long accepted those same documents for other immigrants seeking driver’s licenses.

“The Court is not saying that the Constitution requires the State of Arizona to grant driver’s licenses to all noncitizens,” Judge Campbell wrote. “But if the State chooses to confer licenses on some individuals who have been temporarily authorized to stay [in the US] by the federal government, it may not deny them to similarly situated individuals without a rational basis for the distinction.”

The judge concluded that the state had failed to offer a rational reason for treating the two groups differently.

Arizona has long been a battleground between the Obama administration’s more permissive immigration approach and the state’s attempt to crack down on illegal immigration.

The battle reached the US Supreme Court in 2012, where the majority justices struck down several state measures that they said interfered with the administration’s broad discretion over immigration and the status of non-citizens in the US.

The driver’s license issue also went to the Supreme Court in an interlocutory appeal last month. Arizona asked the high court to allow the state to continue to refuse to issue driver’s licenses to the Dreamers.

The court declined the request, opening the way for the state to begin issuing licenses. Three justices – Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – would have granted the state’s request.

State officials are reviewing whether to appeal Campbell’s injunction.

The case is Arizona Dream Act Coalition v. Brewer (12cv2546).