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State torn on driver’s licenses for children of illegal immigrants

It’s a right of passage for teens, the Holy Grail of high school, an iconic symbol of young adulthood freedom — that tiny piece of plastic called a driver’s license.


For children of illegal immigrants, however, it’s long been out of reach, until now — maybe. New federal rules could open the door for children of illegal immigrants to get a license, but in North Carolina, policy makers are still sorting out what their own interpretation of the new policy will be.

Last summer, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum making certain allowances for children of immigrants who came here illegally. Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, they can get two-year work permits, temporary Social Security numbers and are effectively protected from deportation. The program is only open to people younger than 30 who moved to the U.S. before the age of 16 and are high school graduates, attending college or have served in the military.

Initially, the state was issuing licenses to those who had jumped through the federal hoops and gotten the temporary legal status. But citing confusion over state law, the Division of Motor Vehicles stopped issuing any more of the licenses last September, pending a ruling from the state Attorney General’s office.

“Out of an abundance of caution, DMV officials requested a legal opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office and decided to stop issuing driver licenses to applicants under the DACA program until a legal opinion was issued,” according to a statement from N.C. DOT, which oversees DMV operations.

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In the meantime, however, a few DMV offices kept issuing licenses to children of illegal immigrants. When state officials learned of the error, those licenses — 13 in all — were rescinded in early January.

That in turn prompted protest from the American Civil Liberties Union and North Carolina Justice Center.

Less than a week later, the N.C. Attorney General’s office finally issued its opinion: the state not only can, but legally should, issue licenses to those in the federal program since they are technically “lawfully present” in the U.S.

In N.C., anyone who has a worker’s permit or is considered “lawfully present” is allowed to get a driver’s license.

However, DMV officials say they are not bound by the attorney general’s opinion. The department has the final say.

“The attorney general’s opinion is not binding. There is no guarantee,” said Raul Pinto, an attorney for the N.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

And it is unclear when or what the DMV will decide. Despite receiving the attorney general’s opinion, the DMV remains stalled.

“It took four months for the Attorney General to offer his opinion; it will take DMV a few days to review that ruling and all its potential implications. We will notify the public once our review is complete,” said Greer Beaty, communications director for the N.C. DOT, in a statement.

Advocates at the ACLU in N.C. are uncertain why the DMV has not started issuing license to people in the DACA program after receiving the attorney general’s response.

“There is no rhyme or reason at this point in our eyes,” Pinto said. “There is no confusion anymore.”

Only a handful of states — Iowa, Illinois, Washington, Utah and New Mexico — are issuing either licenses or driver’s permits to people in the DACA program. Interestingly, Iowa first banned people in the program from receiving licenses, but later, state leaders changed their minds — the opposite of N.C., which handed out licenses before deciding to take the privilege away.

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