A judge on Thursday refused to halt Gov. Jan Brewer's order that denies driver's licenses for young immigrants in Arizona who have gotten work permits and avoided deportation under an Obama administration policy.
U.S. District Judge David Campbell denied a request from immigrant rights advocates for a preliminary injunction and threw out one of their arguments, but their lawsuit remains alive as they pursue arguments that the young immigrants are suffering from unequal treatment.
Arizona's refusal to view those in President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as legal residents has become the most visible challenge to his announcement in June that some young immigrants would be protected from deportation. The Department of Homeland Security has said immigrants with work permits issued under the policy are lawfully present in the U.S.
Campbell rejected the argument by immigrant rights advocates who said Brewer's policy was unconstitutional because it's trumped by federal law.
"This portion of the ruling is not only a victory for the state of Arizona — it is a victory for states' rights, the rule of law and the bedrock principles that guide our nation's legislative process and the division of power between the federal government and states," Brewer said in a statement.
But the judge said the immigrant rights advocates are likely to succeed in arguing that the state lets some immigrants with work permits get driver's licenses but won't let immigrants protected under Obama's program have the same benefit.
Cecillia Wang, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups representing the immigrants, said those who challenged Brewer's policy will examine their options in court for protecting the young immigrants.
"It's keeping people out on a limb," Wang said of the ruling.
Last summer, the Obama administration took administrative steps to shield thousands of immigrants from deportation. Applicants for the deferment program must have come to the U.S. 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.
Arizona's policy allows anyone with lawful immigration status to get a driver's license, and more than 500 immigrants with work permits have obtained Arizona driver's licenses in recent years. But Arizona officials have said they don't want to extend driver's licenses to those in the new program because they don't believe the youths will be able to stay in the country legally.
Brewer's lawyers argued that Obama's policy isn't federal law and the state has the authority to distinguish between immigrants with work permits who are on the path toward permanent residency and those benefiting from Obama's policy. The state's lawyers argued Arizona isn't violating its own policy by refusing to grant licenses to the immigrants in the program, because the youths haven't been granted legal protections by Congress.
Immigrant rights advocates filed their lawsuit in November on behalf of five young-adult immigrants who were brought to the U.S. from Mexico as children. They were granted deferred-deportation protections under the Obama administration's policy but were denied driver's licenses in Arizona.
The lawsuit said 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.
A similar lawsuit was filed in Michigan after officials there initially decided to deny young immigrants licenses, but the case was dropped when the state changed its policy last month. At least 38 states have agreed to give driver's licenses to immigrants benefiting from the Obama policy, but Nebraska and Ohio officials have also balked.
Brewer 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.