PHOENIX - The first major legal battle over President Barack Obama's policy allowing young illegal immigrants to stay in the United States focuses on whether the federal government or state officials have the authority to decide who is legally in the country.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer issued an order in August denying driver's licenses for young immigrants who are protected from deportation and have received work permits under the new policy. U.S. District Judge David Campbell heard arguments Friday in a lawsuit seeking to block Brewer's action.
Immigrant groups argue that Arizona's interpretation of the policy is unconstitutional because the state allows some immigrants with work permits to get driver's licenses, but it won't let immigrants protected by Obama's policy pursue any benefits because the state doesn't consider them legal residents.
"States are prohibited from creating their own immigration classifications, and that is exactly what Arizona is doing here," said Jennifer Chang Newell, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, in the hearing.
Brewer's lawyers claim Obama's policy isn't federal law and that 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 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The state has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
The state's lawyers argued that Arizona is not violating its own policy by refusing to grant licenses to the immigrants in the deferred action program, because the youths haven't been granted legal protections by Congress.
"They have no hope of lawful status," said Douglas Northup, the lead counsel for the governor and the state Department of Transportation. He noted that Congress had the opportunity to pass immigration reform for young immigrants many times in recent years and choose not to do so.
Campbell said he would issue a ruling within the next few weeks.
Arizona's refusal to view those in the deferred action program as legal residents has become the most visible challenge to Obama's announcement in June that it would protect some young immigrants from deportation. The Department of Homeland Security has said immigrants with work permits issued under the policy are lawfully present in the U.S.
The federal program allows illegal immigrants to apply for a two-year renewable work permit. Qualified applicants 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 a GED program, or have served in the military.
Arizona's policy allows anyone with lawful immigration status to obtain 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, a nod to a widely held belief among conservatives in Arizona that a judge will eventually rule the administration's policy unconstitutional.
"The Obama amnesty plan doesn't make them legally here," Brewer said shortly after the program was unveiled.
Her tough stance has been cited by immigrant advocacy groups as evidence that Arizona's refusal to grant the young immigrants driver's licenses is a discriminatory policy that violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.
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 licenses in Arizona.
The three groups leading the lawsuit are the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status that would let all other young immigrants in Arizona benefiting from the deferred action program to join the lawsuit. Roughly 80,000 immigrants in Arizona are eligible for the program, according to state estimates.
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.
Dulce Matuz, president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and a plaintiff in the case, said finding a job without a driver's license can be difficult because some online applications and interviewers require a license.
"Gov. Brewer wants to dismiss our human dignity. She wants to dismiss our dreams," Matuz said after the hearing.