Lawsuit Challenges Arizona’s Discriminatory Denial of Driver’s Licenses to Domestic Violence Survivors and Others
By Nicholas Espíritu, NILC staff attorney
SEPTEMBER 15, 2016
Marcos had had an Arizona driver’s license for years, so he was shocked when he went to the Motor Vehicles Division (MVD) to renew it. Because Arizona would no longer accept his valid federal employment authorization document (EAD) as proof that he had authorization from the federal government to be in the U.S., he now had no way of getting the renewal.
What Marcos didn’t know then was that Arizona had started denying driver’s licenses to immigrant survivors of domestic violence and their family members—people like himself—in a misguided attempt to continue denying licenses to people who’d received DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Arizona’s discriminatory policy of denying licenses to people with DACA had been challenged in court and ruled unconstitutional.
Earlier this week, Marcos and four other Arizonans who were denied licenses under the new policy filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s continuing discrimination against survivors of domestic violence, parents of critically ill children, and Liberian nationals forced to flee their country because of armed conflict and widespread civil strife. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from NILC, MALDEF, and the Ortega Law Firm.
President Obama announced the DACA initiative in June 2012. It provides a way for young immigrants who have significant ties to the U.S. to apply both for temporary permission to stay in the U.S. and work authorization. People are granted DACA and work authorization for two years, and they can apply to renew it.
A few months after the president announced DACA, however—on August 15, 2012—the then-governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, issued an executive order instructing state agencies to take any necessary steps to “prevent Deferred Action recipients from obtaining eligibility … for any … state identification, including a driver’s license.” Brewer stated that the order was intended to clarify that there would be “no drivers [sic] licenses for illegal people.” In her opinion, they are “here illegally and unlawfully in the state of Arizona and it’s already been determined that you’re not allowed to have a driver’s license if you are here illegally.” Shortly after she issued the order, the MVD changed its official policy, which previously allowed anyone with an EAD to get a license, to now deny driver’s licenses to DACA recipients.
In late 2012, NILC, the ACLU, and MALDEF joined with the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and several individual DACA recipients to challenge that policy. A federal district court judge issued an early order indicating he was likely to find that Arizona was unconstitutionally discriminating against DACA recipients—in part because the MVD was still issuing licenses to people whose situation was similar to DACA recipients’, including to all non-DACA deferred action recipients. Rather than abandoning its unconstitutional policy, Arizona doubled down and extended its discriminatory policy to people who’d received deferred action for reasons such as that they’d suffered domestic abuse or had chronically, severely ill children.
After nearly four years of litigation in the original case, federal courts have issued three rulings requiring Arizona to issue licenses to DACA recipients and finding its policy of denying them licenses illegal. This legal precedent clearly demonstrates that anyone who has an EAD and can satisfy Arizona’s other driver’s license requirements is eligible to be issued a license in Arizona. The illegality of the state’s current policy was brought to the current governor’s attention last year, but state officials still declined to change it voluntarily. Marcos never should have had to file a lawsuit.
When Governor Doug Ducey took office in January of last year, many thought that he would be willing to turn over a new leaf for the state, including consigning to the past virulent anti-immigrant policies such as those that marked the era of Brewer and former Senator Russell Pearce. But despite his administration’s claim that it values DACA recipients’ contributions, it insists on continuing Brewer’s crusade against DACA recipients—which now is inflicting very real collateral damage on other vulnerable immigrant populations in Arizona.
While legal precedent is clearly in favor of the plaintiffs in this new lawsuit, it is unfortunate that Arizona continues to decline to follow the law, much less do the right thing by its immigrant communities.