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Licenses For Young Illegal Immigrants?

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There is a new wrinkle in the debate over driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants: what to do about licenses for young people who are in the country unlawfully but have been given temporary reprieves from deportation under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Currently, young illegal immigrants, like others unlawfully in this country, can obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses if they provide proof of residency. That’s the result of a New Mexico law enacted in 2003 that permits foreign nationals to obtain licenses regardless of immigrant status.

But Gov. Susana Martinez has been pushing to do away with licenses for illegal immigrants, and the issue will be back before the Legislature when it convenes in January.

Obama’s new program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, will certainly complicate the debate.

Now, any bill to repeal driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants will have to deal with whether to exempt young people with deferred deportations and allow them to continue to obtain licenses.

There also is a question whether an exemption would comply with Real ID, the federal law tightening standards for driver’s licenses and state-issued ID cards.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said the administration is examining the issue.

“There are legal questions and debates about whether those illegal immigrants who are under the temporary deferred action program are considered to have legal status,” Knell said. “This lack of clarity is certainly a byproduct of Washington’s failure to address issues of immigration reform.”

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there is no question about the immigration status of young illegal immigrants who have had their deportations deferred.

“Deferred action does not confer any lawful status,” Immigration Services says on its website.

Under DACA, implemented this summer, illegal immigrants who came here before age 16 and were under the age of 31 as of June 15 can apply to have their deportations deferred for two years if they have a GED, are in school or are honorably discharged military veterans. Two-year deferrals can be renewed.

Illegal immigrants convicted of felonies and some other crimes aren’t eligible for DACA.

Immigrants approved for the program are authorized to work in this country and obtain Social Security cards despite not having lawful immigration status.

So far, program applications from more than 53,000 immigrants have been approved, and nearly 125,000 more applications were under review as of mid-November, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency hasn’t released application numbers for New Mexico.

The issue of what to do about driver’s licenses for young immigrants in the DACA program has already surfaced in several states, at times with controversy, according to Stateline, the news service of the Pew Center on the States.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has announced her state won’t issue driver’s licenses to DACA participants but now faces a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

In Michigan, the secretary of state also has barred DACA participants from obtaining licenses, according to Stateline.

But in some other states, like Texas, the work authorization forms and Social Security cards given to program participants will be enough for DACA participants to get driver’s licenses even though those states don’t specifically allow licenses for illegal immigrants.

So far, California is the only state that has enacted a law to explicitly permit driver’s licenses for DACA participants, Stateline reported.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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