Transportation Secretary Tony Tata and Motor Vehicles Commissioner James Forte say they will announce their decision at 4 p.m. today on whether to comply with a Jan. 17 ruling from the state Attorney General's Office that said DMV should issue driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants taking part in a federal program that postpones their deportation.
(2/15/13 update: See story with reader comments: N.C. to give driver's licenses to immigrants in Deferred Action program.)
The issue affects teens and young adults – estimated at 18,000 to 50,000 in North Carolina – who were brought to the United States illegally as children. The Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provides two-year work permits, and a deferral of deportation, for = young immigrants who meet certain qualifications.
Non-citizens who apply for driver’s licenses must provide documents to prove their “legal presence” in North Carolina, under state law. Former DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson asked Attorney General Roy Cooper in September for legal advice on whether DACA participants meet that requirement.
Yes, Cooper's office replied in a Jan. 17 letter from Grayson Kelley, chief deputy attorney general. DACA work permits show that the federal government has certified that their presence here is legal for two years. It does not change their long-term status as illegal immigrants, Kelley wrote.
Tata said Jan. 11 that DMV “will do whatever the law tells us to do” for DACA participants. Since then, he has said DOT was studying Kelley's ruling.
One teen immigrant who has a DACA work permit said she was denied a license this week and delivered a petition with 23,500 signatures to Gov. Pat McCrory, calling on DMV to issue licenses to DACA participants.
Tata told legislators this week that his predecessors at DOT and DMV were the ones who decided to stop issuing licenses to DACA participants.
“I want to clarify some misinformation that has been circulating on this issue and update you on our way ahead,” Tata said Tuesday at a meeting of the House and Senate transportation appropriations subcommittees. “First, there has been no policy change for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival applicants. The only change so far is that we have been transparent in our communication about our practices.”
Tata’s spokeswoman, Greer Beaty, said The News & Observer erred Wednesday when it reported that DMV had stopped issuing the licenses in January.
DOT records indicate that the no-licenses policy dates from the previous administration, as Tata said. But it apparently was not enforced until Tata took charge at DOT.
Robertson, who retired in October, said DMV would stop issuing the licenses when he requested the attorney general’s ruling on Sept. 10 (see copy below). In a Sept. 14 bulletin distributed to DMV officials across the state (see copy below), Robertson instructed license examiners not to issue licenses or ID cards “to anyone claiming ‘deferred action’ status under the ‘Dream Act.’”
But lawyers and advocates who work with undocumented immigrants have said DMV did not stop issuing licenses to DACA participants until mid-January, after Tata took charge of DOT under the new governor, Pat McCrory.
Tata says DMV officials discovered in December that they had issued licenses to 13 DACA participants who should not have received them. They sent out letters Jan. 13 revoking the licenses. And on Jan. 14 they issued more detailed instructions to license examiners examiners (see copy below) – apparently the first instructions they had issued since Robertson's bulletin four months earlier – specifying that licenses should not be issued to applicants with a C33 work card, which indicates they are participants in the DACA program.
The DMV driver's license website provides a list of documents that can be used by non-U.S. citizens to prove their "lawful presence" in the state, so they can qualify for a license. One document accepted in the past, and still accepted in many cases, is a federal I-766 work permit. The list was updated in mid-January to exclude C33 work permits issued to DACA participants. Now it says: "I-766 Employment Authorization Card (must not reflect C33)."
DMV officials said they didn’t know of any drivers other than the 13 who had received the licenses before Jan. 13. Immigrant advocates say they believe the actual numbers were much higher.