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One Step at a Time

By: Mykaela Aguilar


The same day President Obama enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer used executive action to exclude DACA recipients from obtaining a driver’s license in Arizona.


Aimed at immigrants brought to the United States as youth, DACA grants recipients a work permit and two-year reprieve from deportation that can be renewed. To qualify for this deferred action the applicant must, among other things, have been brought to the U.S. before the age of sixteen, be enrolled in school or in the military, and have zero felonies or serious misdemeanors.


Since Obama used executive order to enact DACA, Brewer argues that it does not grant recipients lawful presence because that is a power reserved for Congress. Arizona driver’s license policy requires proof of legal residency to obtain a license, and the state does not recognize DACA status as such.


Immigrant rights groups have sued the state arguing that the policy is discriminatory, because immigrants receiving other types of deferred action remained eligible for driver’s licenses. The state later sought to expand its denial of licenses to all immigrants receiving deferred action, either formally or informally avoiding the appearance of discrimination.


Arizona’s Federal Judge David Campbell said he found merit in the argument that Brewer’s decision to deny driver’s licenses to DACA recipients was unconstitutional. He denied the case however, and it went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals where in July the policy was ruled unconstitutional.


The state asked for a rehearing, and during this time licenses remained on hold. The three judges argued that this delay was harming DACA recipients, making it difficult for them to get to their jobs or go to school, both of which were privileges extended to them through the program.


Last month, the court denied the request of a rehearing and Brewer is currently weighing her options to take the case to the Supreme Court. Brewer has less than a month left in office, but her successor Doug Ducey will likely take the reigns if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case.


Immigration Attorney Ray Ybarra Maldonado argues, “In my mind that case is over and done and a victory. We’re just waiting for the mandate to come down from the district court to tell the state of Arizona to start giving driver’s licenses.”


Maldonado says the denial of driver’s licenses to DACA recipients is not making them return to their home countries, but instead is having the opposite affect. “It just makes people want to keep fighting here more for what they already know is rightfully theirs. The right to work here, be with their family, and be together.”


Diana Aguilar is an eighteen-year-old DACA recipient from Mexico City, who was brought to Phoenix by her parents when she was one year old. She works and attends college, using alternative means of transportation to get where she needs to be.


Getting to work is a 20-minute walk, and on the nights when she works the closing shifts until 10:30 p.m., her father will pick her up so she doesn’t have to walk in the dark. Aguilar’s commute to school takes about an hour using both the bus and light rail, while other days she gets a ride from her boyfriend who has class around the same time she does.


Aguilar still disagrees that life would be simpler if her family were to have stayed in Mexico. She said, “It’s very hard from what I’ve heard from my parents. People are poor, the highest people are usually the worst.” Mexico’s minimum wage was recently raised to $5 a day, while in the U.S. the federal minimum is $7.25 per hour.


Aguilar is a representative of the 22,000 DACA recipients in Arizona and 632,855 nationally, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Arizona and Nebraska are the only states that deny driver’s licenses to these individuals. The National Immigration Law Center says, “DACA recipients who are granted deferred action and obtain work authorization and Social Security numbers fit well within the general rules for driver’s license issuance in almost every state.”


After receiving her work permit in June, Aguilar applied to 20 jobs total and began work a month later at a café near her home. She now works at a clothing store and puts in 32 hours per week, which pays for her twelve college credits and helping with her family.


Because her younger sister Kira was born in the U.S., she won’t have to face many of the same challenges Aguilar or her parents do.  “I’m actually really happy that she doesn’t have to face any of that, because I struggle with it so much now. Even though she won’t understand what I go through…She’s going to have all the opportunities I didn’t.”


Talking about balancing work and school schedules, she says, “I seriously hardly ever see them [her family]… Sometimes I don’t even know what’s going on until two weeks later.” Nevertheless, she tries not to think about her immigration status very often. “Some day those things are going to change and I’m going to be able to do what I want to do in my life.”


According to Maldonado it takes within 30 days after the courts decision, which happened on November 24th, for the ruling to be mandated.  Even if the Supreme Court accepts the case later on, the state will have to issue driver’s licenses to DACA recipients within the month. Maldonado says, “It’s all procedure now. We’re basically waiting for paperwork to be filed.”


To those on the opposite end of the issue, Aguilar says, “They can ride the bus with me, because it’s hard and it’s not something that we choose it just happens…It’s a real struggle having to depend on something all the time.” She adds, “even though I struggle, I know people have their different opinions. I just want people to see from our side…I mean we’re just people. There’s no difference between who we are and who they are, we’re just people.”


If the state does not comply in issuing driver’s licenses after the 30-day period, it is likely a federal judge will call the governor into court and hold them in contempt for disregarding the law.

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