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Some States Put Brakes On Driver's Licenses For Illegal Immigrants

Jan 16, 2013
Originally published on January 18, 2013 7:16 am

Lucas Codognolla's hands shake as he waits in line at the Bridgeport, Conn., DMV for his turn to take the road test.

"I don't know if it's nerves or the excitement, you know?" he says.

The 22-year-old's family emigrated from Brazil when was just 9. When he turned 16 and wanted to get his driver's license, his parents sat him down and told him the truth: He was in the country illegally.

Initially, he lied to his friends about why he couldn't drive, he says. But then, as he got older, driving simply became necessary.

"I had to drive because I had a job that I had to go to. I had to go to school," Codognolla says. "And there was no way for me to rely on my parents to take me everywhere."

His friends gave him a hard time for always driving slowly, he says. But Codognolla was petrified of being pulled over.

"Not putting your signals on, or whatever, and that could potentially lead to being an immigration problem," he explains.

Last summer, President Obama announced a new federal immigration policy for young people like Codognolla, who were brought to this country before they turned 16. If they're in school or have a high school diploma and meet other requirements, they're allowed to stay in the U.S. for at least two years and get work papers.

Now, as many as 30 states are allowing immigrants with this new designation to receive driver's licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for immigrant rights. Tanya Broder, an attorney with the center, says that access to driver's licenses is a matter of state law.

"The way that most state laws are written is that as long as somebody is authorized by federal law to be present in the United States, then they are eligible for a driver's license," she says.

Legal Challenges

Some states, however, have decided that the people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program don't qualify.

"It wasn't approved through Congress," says Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

"It's represented nowhere in the law. And for that reason we believe that these individuals don't qualify for a driver's license in the state of Arizona," Benson adds.

Like most states, Arizona offers licenses to some immigrants who qualify for other deferred action programs, including victims of domestic abuse and political refugees. But Benson insists Obama's new program for young people is of a special nature.

The federal agency that oversees lawful immigration sees things differently.

"The relief an individual receives through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals process is the same for immigration purposes as that obtained by any other person who receives deferred action," says Chris Bentley, a press secretary for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The National Immigration Law Center has filed legal challenges over the issue in Arizona and Michigan. But, even in states like Connecticut, officials aren't just giving away licenses. Lucas Codognolla still has to pass his road test.

When he pulls his car back up to the DMV after the test, the examiner has good news.

"You're going to go inside now and get your license," she tells him.

After the paperwork, fee and photo, he's handed the license.

"Wow, I got my license," he says, gripping it in both hands and staring. "See, I'm a little speechless."

The piece of plastic, he explains, is more than just the ability to drive without looking over his shoulder for police; it means having an identity.

Copyright 2013 WSHU Public Radio Group. To see more, visit http://www.wshu.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Since President Obama announced his deferred action plan for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, more than 355,000 young illegal immigrants have gotten permission to work in the U.S. And as Craig LeMoult of member station WSHU reports, many states have begun issuing them driver's licenses.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Lucas Codognolla's hands are shaking as he waits on line at the Bridgeport, Connecticut DMV for his turn to take the road test.

LUCAS CODOGNOLLA: I don't know if it's nerves or the excitement, you know?

LEMOULT: The 22-year-old's family emigrated from Brazil when he was just 9. When he turned 16 and wanted to get his driver's license, his parents sat him down and told him the truth - he was in the country illegally. He says initially, he lied to his friends about why he couldn't drive. But then, as he got older, driving simply became necessary.

CODOGNOLLA: I had to drive because I had a job. I had to go to school. There was no way for me to rely on my parents to take me everywhere.

LEMOULT: He says his friends gave him a hard time for always driving slowly. But he was petrified of being pulled over.

CODOGNOLLA: Not putting your signals on, or whatever, and that could lead to being an immigration problem.

LEMOULT: Last summer, President Obama announced a new federal immigration policy for young people like Codognolla, who were brought to this country before they turned 16. If they're in school or have a high school diploma and meet other requirements, they're allowed to stay in the U.S. for at least two years and get working papers.

And now, many states like Connecticut are allowing immigrants with this new designation to receive driver's licenses.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This road test is going to take about 20 minutes or so.

LEMOULT: Codognolla sits behind the wheel of a Chrysler Voyager.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Take your time, don't rush with the test. It's not how fast you go, that you do it right, okay? All right. Okay.

LEMOULT: The National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for immigrant rights, says at least 30 states are now offering licenses to this group. Attorney Tanya Broder with the center says access to driver's licenses is a matter of state law.

TANYA BRODER: But the way that most state laws are written is that as long as somebody is authorized by federal law to be present in the United States, then they are eligible for a driver's license.

LEMOULT: Some states, though, have decided that the people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program don't qualify. Matthew Benson is a spokesman for Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.

MATTHEW BENSON: It wasn't approved through Congress. It's represented nowhere in the law. And for that reason we believe that these individuals don't qualify for a driver's license in the state of Arizona.

LEMOULT: Like most states, Arizona does offers licenses to some immigrants who qualify for other deferred action programs, including victims of domestic abuse and political refugees. But Benson says President Obama's new program for young people is different. The federal agency that oversees lawful immigration sees things differently. Chris Bentley is a press secretary for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

CHRIS BENTLEY: The relief an individual receives through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals process is the same for immigration purposes as that obtained by any other person who receives deferred action.

LEMOULT: The National Immigration Law Center has filed legal challenges over the issue in Arizona and Michigan. Even in states like Connecticut, officials aren't just giving away licenses. Lucas Codognolla still has to pass his road test. He pulls the Chrysler back up to the DMV. He made a couple of mistakes, but not enough to fail.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Okay? So you do pass. You got to go inside now and get your license.

LEMOULT: Back inside the DMV, there's paperwork, paying the fee and a photo. And then, it's handed to him.

CODOGNOLLA: All set? Okay. Wow, I got my license.

LEMOULT: He grips it in both hands and just stares at it for awhile.

CODOGNOLLA: See, I'm a little speechless.

LEMOULT: Codognolla says it is more than just the ability to drive without looking over his shoulder for police. Having a license in the U.S. means having an identity. For NPR News, I'm Craig Lemoult in Fairfield, Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.