The U.S. Supreme Court left undisturbed a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling requiring Arizona to issue driver’s licenses to beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program or the so-called “DREAMers”. The recent decision is a victory and a big gift for thousands of immigrant youth in Arizona this holiday season.
President Obama’s DACA program, which started in 2012, granted deferred action to immigrants who arrived in the United States before turning 16 and who satisfied all other eligibility requirements including meeting the age cap of 31 years, education, physical and continuous presence requirements and passing a criminal background check. Recipients of the program were granted deferred action status and employment authorization for a period of two years.
DACA beneficiaries who obtained work permits and Social Security numbers have been able to apply for driver’s license in 48 states. Only Arizona and Nebraska adopted policies that specifically made DACA beneficiaries ineligible to obtain driver’s licenses.
The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 6 to 3 vote stated that the state’s policy barring DACA recipients from obtaining driver’s licenses was likely unconstitutional. It instructed the federal district court hearing the case to issue a preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of the state’s policy while the case continued.
The challenged policy has been in effect for two and a half years. Arizona Governor Janice Brewer, on the very day the DACA program took effect, issued an executive order directing state agencies to make DACA beneficiaries ineligible for “state identification, including driver’s license”
The Arizona Department of Transportation then adopted a policy specifically rejecting employment authorization documents issued to DACA beneficiaries as proof of eligibility for driver’s license. Meanwhile, it continued to accept employment authorization documents of other noncitizens legally in the U.S.
The Appeals Court in its decision stated that the policy most likely violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Appeals Court found no rational basis for the state to treat DACA beneficiaries any differently from other noncitizens who were in the country legally and were allowed to apply for a driver’s license using their employment authorization documents.
According to Justice Harry Pregerson who wrote the opinion, “Defendant’s policy appears intended to express animus towards DACA recipients themselves.”
The Appeals Court also considered the “preemption” claim which basically means that federal law trumps state-enacted regulation. By refusing to grant driver’s licenses to DACA beneficiaries, the state policy “interferes with Congress’ intent that the Executive Branch possess discretion to determine when noncitizens may work in the United States,” the court said.
The DACA program authorizes certain young immigrants to remain in the U.S. and apply for work permits so they can continue being productive members of society. In Arizona, “the ability to drive may be a virtual necessity for people who want to work.”
By ensuring that DACA recipients are unable to drive, the policy severely curtails their ability to work. In so doing, the policy “would stand as an obstacle to the execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress,” the Appeals Court said.
The Supreme Court in affirming the Appeals Court’s ruling did not give its reasons for its decision. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito, Jr. who disagreed with the majority’s decision also did not give their opinion.